Saturday, 18 May 2013

American Museum of Natural!

If there are any folks who fancy coming along to my lecture at 2pm this Sunday (May 19th) at the American Museum of Natural History (New York), please come along! My talk is entitled, 'Bright Lights and Dinosaurs'.

I have been invited to talk there by the New York Paleontological Society, a splendid body of folks who delve deep into the evolution of life on Earth. You can join this awesome group on this LINK.

You might also get to see some of our most recent cave images, LiDAR scans and even video footage from the antediluvian expedition we mounted over the last two weeks!

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Cave crawling with lasers....

Sometimes you think of a 'great idea'...but then you have to put it into practice. Like many good ideas, they are often far more painful than you might have predicted. When I say painful, it defeats explanation of the many bizarre ways I have found to inflict pain upon myself undertaking what seemed initially a simple procedure. Next time I suggest in a research group meeting 'why don't we simply scan the whole cave system?' either ignore me, or clump me on the head with a blunt object. The LiDAR scanning of a cave system that seems beautifully adapted to size 0 troglodytes is astoundingly hard, hot and positively grim labour.

Dr Bill Sellers tests his Sciatica within the cave system....

The chosen LiDAR tool was certainly the best kit we could have chosen for the task. The Z+F Imager is stunningly engineered and simple to use (the latter being very important for me!). This little beauty pulses an eye-safe laser that maps the 3D geometry of the cave, as we move it from scan station to scan station...some 50+ in the depths of the subterranean maze. Ideally this means we do not get in the way of the said laser when it rotates 180 degrees to scan its surroundings. When using the kit in the open, this is fine...but in a cave, this involves us working alone or in pairs at most (in this case, Bill Sellers and I). As the unit rotates, you have to move with the rotation, avoiding contact with the beam. This makes the later alignment of the 3D scans much easier and there is less tidying-up required of the said scans. In a cave, this involves twisting your body around corners in an attempt not to be scanned....if there is two of you, it is like playing a bizarre game of 3D 'Twister'. Needless to say, a few hours into the scanning, we were monumentally exhausted and ached in places that only maybe an Olympic Twister Champion might ache.

Z+F Imager about to spin its funky we rapidly retreat into the nooks and crannies of the cave!

There is a short delay before the Z+F unit kick-starts each scan, if there is a potential hide hole...this is the time when we scurry like giant gerbils in a stony cage towards stoney refuges in an attempt to avoid messing-up the scan...this is when we trip, scrape, bump, bash and abrade our heads, shoulders, knees and hips against the unforgiving walls of the cave. I am grateful the scanner does not record there there would be vast stretches of profanity that would blight each and very scan...requiring a major edit from the final data.

Our Cave-man natural history guide checks a LiDAR scan marker
By now you might have noticed that I have not mentioned where we are on the planet...other than the fact we are just north of the equator. This is simply to protect one of the most pristine cave systems that the members of our team have ever had the privilege to work within. At this point I would love to praise our local guide, who has been the all-seeing and all-knowing oracle on maters of natural history and a sump of information on the antediluvian realm we are spending so much time. We could not ask for a better guide...who seems to have super-human strength and abilities in terms of caving..not to mention his bat-like night vision. Alas, our splendid guide must remain anonymous, but we still want to thank him for his patience and humour.

Dr Bill Sellers hides in his 'hobbit laser avoidance hole' as I do the 180 degree LiDAR dance...
As with many of our travels, we get to meet many kind and generous folks and today was no exception. The neighbours on the adjoining land to the cave system offered iced tea and provided some of the best tasting water melon in my life. It is amazing how the sensory depravation of a cave system heightens your tastebuds! We even managed to tempt one of the neighbours underground to share some of our enthusiasm for our chosen task. Once we have the 3D maze of the caverns reconstructed from the LiDAR scans...we will also be able to invite you all into the wonderful cavern we have named 'Green Cave'.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Just like a cave....only tighter!

Today we discovered that the frame of an ex-rugby player with a shot rotator cuff is not ideal for caving. Some of the caves that we ventured into today were so tight, that sheets of paper would need to exhale before squeezing through the micron-wide gaps that the caverns presentred us with. Needless to say, some of the team were better suited than others to these tight situations.

At first glance such caves seemed almost possible...but the knee-scouring, chest rubbing, head-butting environment soon seemed better suited to size zero troglodytes. However, Bill Sellers stepped into the breach, or more accurately squeezed into it. So much so, we were worried he might become a permanent feature of the cave. However, after several gallons of perspiration, he managed to slip and slide his way between the unforgiving bedding planes of this particular cavern.

Dr Egerton was also able to squeeze between rocks, where few would dare to pass. Clutching sample bags in one hand and dragging your body with toes and fingernails, was not a task many were up to today...but it seems Victoria is at home in the caves.

I have video of Dr Mike Buckley extracting himself from the jaws of one particular cavern. An image of this incredible endeavour would not do him justice...but the his atire clearly shows the scars of an heroic encounter of a cavernous kind!

As for my endeavours today....well, it has taken me far too long to write this blog one-handed. Caving with a bad shoulder is not a great idea. By the close of play today, we were all hot, dripping in perspiration,  exhausted and very muddy...but above all, we were happy with our exploration achievements of the day.

Here ends another day at the office......

Monday, 13 May 2013

Karst limestone and crabs...

30 degrees Celsius and 75% relative humidity today, but a cool breeze blew on-shore from the South making the heat just bearable.  As we pushed our way through dense undergrowth that seemed determined to snag, pull and slice all members of our team, the temperature and humidity seemed to increase step-by-step and the air became still. Looking over our shoulders back towards where we had left our car, all we could see now was dense jungle, for want of a better term. The ground soon began to get steeper, being the main indicator that we were walking away from the coastal road. We finally reached the base of the limestone wall that seemed as populated with vegetation as the 'path' from the road. Looking up, we could see countless cacti, palms, aloe, mixed with a bright array of tropical plants...all in our path and obscuring the top of the cliff.

Dr Victoria Egerton encourages Dr Mike Buckley not to use the cacti as a hand-hold.
The cliff was severely weathered into a typical karst limestone topography, where dissolution of the more soluble component of the formation left a sharp, almost clinging/sticky surface. The rubber on the soles of our shoes seemed to adhere to the sharp and very unforgiving dolomitized limestone. All member of the team were already drenched in sweet....but we slowly pushed-on, up a vague pathway: one that few had trodden. Finally, at about 40 metres up the rock face, we came to a small ledge and a 1 metre diameter hole, punched into the wall of the sheer cliff. The karst topography had given-up one of its sought-after features...a cave entrance!

Hot, Humid and Happy. Dr Phil finds a hole to explore.
Slowly we donned our caving helmets and crawled into the narrow hole...that soon became narrower and narrower  with awkward twists and turns, combined with tearing dolomitic teeth from the floor, walls and ceiling of the cave. Daylight was soon lost behind us and only the narrow beam of our headlamps picked-out the path deeper into the cave. The humidity was soon oppressive, around 80% rel, and when combined with the 30 C...we were hot, sweaty and miserable. Caving in Britain is at least 20 degrees cooler and half the humidity. However, we had come along way to turn around now. We pushed-on into the cave.

We were soon reduced to crawling on our bellies and pushing our way through tighter and tighter passages, some that led to larger chambers, allowing us to periodically stand-up and stretch our legs. In the corner of a small cavern, something caught our eye...something moving. It seems were were not alone in the depths of the cave system. Somehow, a rather beefy land crab had climbed its way deep into the cave system and seemed happily living in a damp corner.

Cave occupant gets crabby at our presence.
These remarkable crustaceans have evolved to live on land, through 'stiffening' their gills with the same structural biomaterials that construct their tough shelly armour. This prevents their gills collapsing out of water, so the crab has an affective 'lung' that allows its terrestrial life. However, crabs meant trouble for these crunchy scavengers have a nasty habit of ploughing their way through the cave floor debris, often messing-up any possible evidence of prior life in the caves. What might have once been articulated skeletons of a few distinct species, becomes a phylogenetic soup of bones, dust and debris. After surveying the cave for a few hours....we had to retreat to the 'cool' air outside...

Prof. Andrew Chamberlain, Dr Bill Sellers and Dr Mike Buckley emerge from the cave...slightly warm!
This is one cave we will try and LiDAR map later this week, as it holds some rather fun secrets....but more on that later. We only have four days to locate, prospect and map new caves lurking in this tropical karst landscape...that will hopefully not have been 'blended' by the local wildlife.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Lasers, caves and bones...

It is rare that palaeontologists requires caving equipment to track down extinct beasties. However, my teams baggage is currently bulging with hard-hats, lamps, knee-pads, etc., as we are headed underground.

The next few days should be rather fun. We will be trying-out our new Z+F LiDAR unit to image some beautiful caves at a new field area we are currently exploring. We hope to deploy the LiDAR unit to map in-situ bones within this very 3-Dimensional environment. The scans will allow us to spatially plot bone positions relative to the whole cave complex and then relate the materials temporal position within the stratigraphy from which each bone hails. We aim to use this data to better understand the pre- and post-transport/reworking and burial of the said assemblage.... amongst other things.

The most amazing facet of this particular cavern of delights, is that the vertebrate assemblage seems relatively undisturbed, possibly down to the remote nature of our site. I will try and find a way to upload images over the next few days...but this may be difficult....and will be somewhat dictated by the availability of subterranean internet!

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Wedding Selection as an adaptive convergence?

This blog is never used to discuss anything other than palaeontology and the research that our group undertakes at the University of Manchester, but here I make a rare exception.  I will let you be the judge of whether the following belongs on our blog....I think it just makes the mark!

On Saturday April 27th Victoria Egerton and I had our wedding ceremony at the Manchester Museum (University of Manchester). Given our shared interest in palaeontology, we thought our vows should reflect this. Here follows a rather Darwinian wedding ceremony.... 

"Friends, we are gathered here today to join Phillip and Victoria in marriage. In this beautiful building, which is one of nature’s treasure houses, they announce that they will share their lives together. We are all called to be witnesses here today to the love that they share for each other."

Main Ceremony 
"The adaptations that natural selection has gently bestowed upon us yield the endless forms most beautiful that fill our lives. Life on our planet today is one where the struggle for existence is made so much kinder when shared with a partner who understands and jointly explores the wonders of the world in which we live. 

Phil and Victoria have chosen to share their lives together and discover the wonders of the world in their coming years. The chemistry of love that bonds them is firmly linked by their shared experiences and knowledge that brings these two people together so closely.

Just as the bonds of a double helix dictates the beautiful complexities of life, their love for each other is firmly bound in the security that their very existence is linked to all life on earth, whose shared elemental origin was the very building blocks of stars.

The commonality of the molecules that builds life on Earth, transferred from generation to generation, links Victoria and Phil to the planetary cycles that mobilize, share and regenerate all life on Earth.

Together they have many close friends, some of whom have joined them today on this special occasion. Many of their friends enjoy taking time to think, ponder and share the eccentricities that divides us, but that also creates a shared bond between us. As Darwin once said,  “A man's friendships are one of the best measures of his worth”, if this be the case, both Victoria and Phil share great wealth.

Their transatlantic journeys have brought them together, when so often the continents have impeded such migration. The distances that once parted Victoria and Phil, is now bridged through the love that they both share for each other.

May the light that their love brings into the world shine brighter than a million suns."

The Dismissal 
"Einstein beautifully summed-up up the love that both Victoria and Phil clearly share, 'Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love. How on earth can you explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love? Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That's relativity.'

Please join us in wishing Victoria and Phil a successful and exciting journey to discover their future and build a life together, governed by the laws of natural selection and the love that they share for each other."