Monday 29 October 2012

SVP field trip: Basins of the Newark Supergroup

SVP field trips have earned a reputation as being high-quality and fascinating excursions guided by knowledgeable experts who understand the locations visited and their wider context within paleontological research. They often give the attendees access to museum collections and other behind-the-scenes insights at relevant institutions, which allow you to see great stuff not on public display, and they often take you to sites that might not always be accessible otherwise. This year's trip entitled Exploring Newark Supergroup Basins in North Carolina and Virginia was no exception.

The group study the exposures at the Virginia Solite Quarry.

 The Newark Supergroup was deposited in the Triassic as a series of rift basins extending from the Gulf to Canada, and North Carolina and Virginia have the southernmost surface exposures. We visited sub-basins in two of these basins over the three-day trip, the Dan River basin and the Deep River basin.

We were led by Andy Heckert (Appalacian State University), Nick Fraser (National Museums Scotland) and Vince Schneider (North Carolina of Natural Sciences), with on-site guidance at a couple of sites from Russ Patterson, a veteran local collector with unparalleled knowledge of these sites. We were driven by Jerry Reynolds, who is also a naturalist and was of great assistance to those of us who are unfamiliar with the flora and fauna of North Carolina and Virginia.

There were twenty-two of us on the trip, which meant most of us fitted into Jerry's bus with a couple of others in the van driven by Andy. We set off from the Marriott early on Sunday morning for three days of Triassic goodness, heading firstly to the Triangle quarry.

Unfortunately the Triangle Quarry owners had pulled our permission to enter the quarry the day before, so we had to be content with standing outside where the leaders gave an excellent introduction to the geology of the Newark Supergroup and showed us some of the fossils we would be looking for. We then headed back to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for a look in the collections (always a real treat) and then lunch.

A phytosaur tooth found by the author at the Little Egypt site.

 After eating we headed out to Jordan Lake to examine a small outcrop on the margin of the lake for around 15 minutes before heading off to the spoil heaps of the Little Egypt mine of the Sandford Fm, where we were guided by NC resident Russ Patterson, who gave us a description of the site, the works that had been here, what exposures were present and what to look for. This proved to be a most fruitful spot, and as we scraped away the accumulated detritus of the forest floor we exposed slabs we could split with hammers. We found phytosaur teeth and conchostracans in the shales, black widows and ring-necked snakes in hidey-holes.

The road construction site, with blocks blasted from the Crumnock Formation on the right.

 Our final stop that day was at a road construction site, where thousands of large boulders that had been blasted out of the Crumnock Fm during construction were piled up at the road margin, awaiting processing for hard-core. These boulders contained rare bones and occasional trace fossils, and we spent some time prospecting these piles of rocks. Several small bones were found, and I recorded some ichnofossils present in the hard, red sedimentary rock. Dinner that night was in the Cafe Vesuvio, and we all enjoyed a beer with a fine meal.

A quarry opened by some of the group at the Boren Clay pits.

Next day saw us team up with Russ again at the Boren Clay pits, an overgrown and partially flooded site (great for raisin’ skeeters!) with plant remains in the sandy upper layers of the outcrop of the Pekin Fm we were prospecting. We then set off for Alton Creek, which we reached after a short hike through the woods. This was a small outcrop of Crumnock Fm shales eroded by the creek, and here we found well-preserved conchostracans. We also found an Eastern Box Turtle, (Jerry thought it was a male, around 10 years old) who didn't appreciate the attention he was getting and subsequently closed his hinged plastron very tightly for the duration of our visit.

The rather charming Eastern Box Turtle found on at Alton Creek,
photographed just before he decided to shut out those pesky palaeontologists.

Then it was off to a road cutting on Highway 220, close to the Dan River. This site, with it's fine-grained and easily-split shales yielded a diverse range of fossils including ostracods, conchostracans, coprolites, vertebrate teeth and at least one fish scale.

Prospecting the cut close to the Dan River Bridge on highway 220.

We finished the day at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, where Alton Dooley led us around the excellent collections and who then fed and watered (beered?) us most satisfactorily before we retired to the characterful Dutch Inn.

Tranytrachelos tail found at the Virginia Solite Quarry.
Note the linear traces to the immediate right of the tail, which
appear to have been made when the tail moved over the sediment.

The Virginia Solite Quarry was our next location and this proved to be most exciting. Next to the site office is a large block containing ripple-marks and several Grallator trackways. The quarry section we were there to see consists of seventeen 20,000 year-old sedimentary cycles of the Upper Cowbranch Fm that are tilted at around 50 degrees. These grade from dark shales at the base of each cycle to massive sandstone beds at the top, and several beds are known to contain fossils. Some of these had been exposed in a trench excavated a few years previously and now sectioned by the quarry rim and most of the crew headed up to start digging there, however three of us stayed on the quarry floor where we searched the blocks for ichnofossils, the best of which were found by Beth Southwell and we interpreted as small tetrapod swim marks. However, the undoubted highlights of this site were the Tranytrachelos fossils found by several of the crew. This small, long-necked semi-aquatic tetrapod has bene found with soft tissue and whilst we didn’t spot these in our samples, after an hour or so of digging several partial specimens of this animal had be recovered.

A small tetrapod swim trace found at the Virginia Solite Quarry site.
We found several of these very small tracks in the fine-grained sediments of the quarry.

 Finally we headed back (via the VMNH) to Raleigh and the start of the SVP.

Big thanks to the trip leaders Andy, Vince and Nick, who proved to be excellent guides to this part of the Newark Supergroup. Extra kudos goes to Nick who stepped in for Paul Olsen who was supposed to lead but was prevented from doing due to family reasons. Thanks also to Alton at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, Jerry the driver and identifier of flora and fauna (as well as his fascinating explanation of how to handle venomous snakes) and Russ for being so generous with his extensive local knowledge. One of the great things about this trip was the amount of time we spent prospecting and digging and it really felt like we’d been doing good fieldwork during the three days we spent out and about.

Finally, a big thanks to the other attendees for being such excellent company for three days; as with Utah last year it feels like I've made good friends and I look forward to our next meeting, and perhaps working with them in the future.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

The SVP goes south: Raleigh, 2012

I returned home Monday morning, jet-lagged but happy after attending the SVP's annual meeting which was held in Raleigh, North Carolina this year. We went on a field trip to the Newark Supergroup of North Carolina and Virginia for the three days prior to the meeting start, and that will get a post of its own next time, but despite there being some excellent reviews of the meeting (see Brian Switek's write-up here) I thought I'd blog my own observations.

The venue was the Raleigh Convention Center, a cavernous building in downtown Raleigh, with the poster sessions and trade exhibitors in a room in the lower part of the centre, and the talks in the three ballrooms on the upper level. Apart from the cost of the beer, the fact the wi-fi was nearly $20 a day caused some dissent amongst the ranks, as many of us are tweeters and bloggers and wanted to communicate the science to the world outside. To their credit, the Convention Center dropped the charge after a day or so and those so inclined could tweet without incurring cost and the meeting was all the better for it.

The meeting reception was held in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and this proved a real treat. So much of a treat, I'm going to blog about the museum separately as a paragraph or two will not do it justice. Watch this space (and twitter).

Of course, the science was the star and we weren't disappointed with a full programme of excellent talks and poster sessions. There were too many highlights to list them all but I really enjoyed Parson's talk on the flexibility of Deinonychus' neck, Brent Breithaupt's discussion on the accuracy of photogrammetry when compared directly with Lidar and Kevin Padian's presentation on pterosaur tracks, or lack thereof. As has been said elsewhere, you can't be in two places at once and so I missed several talks I would have like to have seen, however it's to the credit of the SVP they can put on so many high-quality talks you can't see them all.

The poster session venue and trade stalls.

The poster sessions were also of the usual high quality, with personal highlights being Tony Martin's description of  Alligator mississippiensis dens on St. Catherine's Island, Georgia; Peter Falkingham's deconstruction of one of Hitchcock's dinosaur footprints, Lin's intriguing take on track interpretation using methods used by civil engineers and Gatesy's X-Ray analysis of track formation (no apologies for the ichnological bias).

The trade stalls were good this year too. The Black Hills Institute had a full-sized Gorgosaurus on display (it was fascinating to watch them take it down on Sunday afternoon) and Greg Dykstra of Paleomill were showing their astonishingly good 3D printing technology. David Bergman was there with a full stock of pale-related titles (damn that paltry baggage allowance) and Skulls Unlimited were displaying their usual comprehensive stock of real and replica skulls (my Alligator mississippiensis skull replica is now sitting proudly on the sideboard).

Also present was Viktor Deak of Anatomical Origins, whose work is currently starring on the BBC's superb Prehistoric Autopsy. Viktor is a massively talented artist and sculptor who has been fascinated by human anatomy since being a small boy and the realism achieved in his sculptures is remarkable. On Friday afternoon there was even a Neanderthal woman wandering around the venue, club and all. No-one mentioned admixture.

Stu bangs on about dinosaur tracks to this bloke who kept hanging around Viktor Deak's stall,
and whose name was Neil Der Thall or something. Note Neil's glazed expression.

After last year's meeting in Las Vegas, the Raleigh meeting seemed far less glamorous but also more studious, only punctuated by frantic searches for coffee, food and beer, the essential requirements for palaeontological idea exchange, catching up with colleagues and friends and networking. Plus it had chairs which, er, tooted when you sat down on them (recorded for posterity here). It was fun with fringe meet-ups of tweeters and bloggers (both of which I unfortunately missed), great discussions in the bar of the conference hotel and the banquet and party. The auction was chaotic and lots of laughs were had (as well as bargains) and a goodly amount was raised.

The SVP 2012 banquet and awards ceremony. See those chairs? Parp!

Criticisms? Only that in this day and age videos should always play first time in presentations. Although some people play it safe and leave videos out much modern research benefits from being displayed by moving images and whatever the reason for the problem, it should be addressed pronto. If it plays in the ready room, it should play in the session.

So next year it's Los Angeles, the year after here in Europe at Berlin. I can't wait for either of them and hopefully will be able to get to them both. I love the feeling of getting home and your head still buzzing from the excitement of learning so much which informs your own research, invites questions leading to new research and most of all makes you realise the people that make this event happen, who attend and share their work and become friends and co-workers are really quite special.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Point clouds and palaeontology: DigitalFossil 2012

Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.
Sunday 23rd September saw the start of the first ever DigitalFossil 2012 conference hosted at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. The meeting brought together workers from across the world who are using digital techniques in their research and facilitated discussions and exchanges of ideas via talks and workshops. The venue itself was an inspiration of course, and frequent trips were taken to gaze at the Berlin Archaeopteryx, probably the most beautiful and iconic of all fossils; in real life it was more stunning and detailed than I ever imagined. The reception in the evening in the dinosaur hall got events underway was a good icebreaker as we gathered beneath the gaze of Giraffatitan brancai, sipping beer, nibbling nibbles, renewing old friendships and forging new ones.

The evening reception in the Museum's stunning dinosaur hall.
Brachiosaurid-induced cricked necks ensued.

There were plenty of highlights in the talks too, and it was soon apparent that this is a very exciting time for digital palaeontology and the pace of development of new technologies and techniques is making it a very interesting field to be working in at the present. There was lots on CT and micro-CT, some of it quite jaw-dropping due to the resolution being achieved, several talks about curating the data and disseminating the results of research via web sites and databases (including the brilliant Antweb). There was also discussions on subjects such as the need for a universal 3D file format to ease data sharing and curation (a debate that is vital), navigating through the Creative Commons labyrinth and retaining downstream flexibilty when gathering data using digital techniques.

There were a number of talks about the reconstruction of extinct organisms using digital data as the primary source and using digital techniques. Being a scientific illustrator myself this was of particular interest to me and I learnt a lot from all these talks and it's always fascinating to see how other artists work; here is the genesis of a new paradigm for the visual communication of research.

Blatant self-promotion interlude:
I present The Ichnologist's Guide to 3D models: from the field to the cloud.

I'm glad to say that photogrammetry was also discussed at length and the whole first session was given over to talks discussing various techniques and technical issues. I gave my first ever conference talk, which was about photogrammetry workflow and also co-presented a photogrammetry workshop in the afternoon with experts Neffra Matthews, Brent Breithaupt and Peter Falkingham; both went well and we received good feedback, and all the photogrammetry talks were fascinating.

The photogrammetry workshop recording data from the display of Chirotherium trackways.

There were various demonstrations throughout the three days of the meeting, including Lidar and various scanning technologies, although with the notable exception of Peter Falkingham's excellent discussion of the use of Kinect as a scanner all of these are out of the price-range of a self-funded researcher such as myself.

This brief review of DigitalFossil2012 does not do justice to either the work of the organisers or that of the presenters whose talks were so informative and thought-provoking. I highly recommend you check out the abstracts online to find out more about what was discussed. You know you've been to an excellent meeting if you come out with your head buzzing and plenty of ideas of how to incorporate these into your own research; my head is buzzing still.

Finally, a big thank you to Heinrich Mallison and his team at Museum für Naturkunde for their tireless work preparing and hosting the conference.