Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education

27Jul/09Off

Beach-Combing Emerald Isle and Topsail Island, NC

(Note: As always, click image for better versions - these are heavily compressed)

Emerald Isle, NC

Last weekend we had a short but nice going away get-away with some friends (psychology graduate students, a parole officer, and a lawyer/rockstar) in Emerald Isle, North Carolina.

My dorky goal was to find more fossilized shark teeth (see previous awesome finds here), in addition to the obvious general goal of having a salty time.

Unfortunately, a storm kept most of the cool ocean debris from washing ashore until Sunday morning. Nevertheless, I found quite a few interesting things.

First off: fossil shark teeth!

Fossil Shark Teeth

Fossil Shark Teeth

The Haul:

The Haul 1

The Haul 1

The Haul 2

The Haul 2

The Haul 3

The Haul 3

Skate Egg Case:

Skate Egg Case

Skate Egg Case

Unknown wicked fish jaw:

wicked fish jaw

wicked fish jaw

Shell Fossils in matrix:

Shell Fossil in matrix

Shell Fossil Cast in matrix

Shell Fossil in matrix

Shell Fossil Cast in matrix

A cool fossil of what I think is a bryozoan.

Fossil Bryozoan

Fossil Bryozoan

I found a nice piece of fossilized bone. Of what? Who knows? Probably whale or dolphin. Or perhaps mermaid.

Fossil Bone

Fossil Bone

I also found several chunks of what I believe is either anthracite coal, or the next metamorphic step - graphite (I'm no geologist - thoughts?). It's very light weight, very hard, and very faceted - which doesn't come across very well in still shots:

Anthracite Coal?

Anthracite Coal?

Anthracite Coal?

Anthracite Coal?

One of the coolest things I found is a relation to organisms I will soon be working with in my new lab: starfish!!
I found two of these, both beautifully colored and still alive. They were washed ashore by the storm, so I tossed em back. I have no idea the likelihood of their survival, but I can say they didn't wash back ashore over the next two days. (I'm awaiting the expertise of Christopher Mah of the Echinoblog for species identification).
Update
: it's a Royal Sea Star, Astropecten articulatus. Quoth the EchinoMaster: "Basically..they are your stereotypical "sand star" predatory on infaunal bivalves and pretty common on sandy-muddy bottoms of the Northeast US.  Attractively colored animals to be sure!" Thanks Chris!

Starfish

Starfish

Starfish

Check out those details!

Starfish

Tube Feet Alive!!

We also got to hit the NC Aquarium in Pine Knoll Shores. It's a pretty rad place, so I was way more interested in pointing my eyes at all the ocean wonders, rather than pointing a camera. But I did get this cool shot of a gator.

Gator

Gator

Ooh - and apparently someone else took a shot of us there - me and John playing with the rays (the ray touch tank was by far the coolest part!).

Petting the stingrays

Petting the stingrays

Topsail Island, NC

A month ago, we also had the opportunity to hit Topsail Island, NC.

Fun was had. Things were seen.

Shark Teeth (Yes - I showed these before).

Fossil Shark Teeth

Great colors!

Fossil Shark Teeth

Ocean smoothed - but still pretty wicked

Mole Crabs (Emerita sp.)

Mole Crab (Emerita sp.)

Mole Crab (Emerita sp.)

Ghost Crab (Ocypode sp.)

Ghost Crab (Ocypode sp.)

Ghost Crab (Ocypode sp.)

And that's it - images are all I have for you at the moment. Enjoy.

I swear, I will have slightly more posts once I get moved to Pittsburgh and settled.

And just because I never show her (she's camera shy), I'm sneaking in this shot of my wife:

A Psychologist

Three Psychologists

5Jul/09Off

A Tale of the Hunt for Fossil Shark Teeth

As someone who has been a lifelong fossil collector, I have a terrible, unforgivable sin to admit: I lived for eight years in North Carolina and never knew of the existence of Aurora, NC.

Mind you, since moving here for graduate school, fossil hunting had fallen off of my priority list, largely owing to the fact that central Carolina rocks are basically all metamorphic (melted and recrystallized by heat and pressure). And I've never been the gung-ho research-fossil-sites-and-go-hunting type. Since I began collecting while living in the Ozark mountains, it was more of a walk-through-my-parents-woods-and-see-what-fossils-I-find-today sort of hobby, with a few far-flung excursions in the mix.

Well that all changed a few weeks ago. My wife, some friends, and I spent a couple of days at Topsail Beach, NC.

Actually - scratch that - it began a few month's ago, when Christie at Observations of a Nerd reported an awesome find of fossil shark teeth in Florida, and then - like the wonderful person she is - sent me a handful of them.

Shark Teeth from the wonderful Christie

Shark Teeth from the wonderful Christie (Note to Christie - they are ray dental plates - not stingray barbs - just learned that - see below)

Back to Topsail Beach, circa a few weeks ago.

I said to myself, "Self - it's the ocean - there are bound to be fossil shark teeth. You (I) will not allow me (myself) to leave this beach without finding at least one shark tooth."

So I spent all my beach time on Saturday perusing the sands for teeth.

To no avail whatsoever. I never saw one.

The next day, I began again, searching much more intently. While combing the fresh tide-swept beach, I saw a tiny black triangle amidst the shells. It was a shark's tooth!!

The filters through which my perception is sifted were now calibrated. Within the next few hours I had a nice handful of tiny teeth. I was ecstatic.

(Note for the fossil pros and beach inhabitants out there: feel free to laugh at my ignorance of what constitutes awesome shark teeth. But these were just about the coolest things I had ever found - at the time.)

Hold your applause - you aint seen nothing yet

Hold your applause - you ain't seen nothing yet

Tiger Sharks - grrrr...er...meow

Tiger Sharks - grrrr...er...meow

Thus was I hooked on shark teeth.

The next necessary stops in my tale are the mountains of West Virginia and hills of Pennsylvania.

Some of you know that I will recently begin a new job at Carnegie Mellon University. As such, we have driven there twice recently. I am utterly awed by the massive amount of roadcuts through the mountains of the two states, all of which reveal millions upon millions of years of Earth's natural history in it's geological strata. I felt the fossil-hunting bug really kick up several notches while driving through those strata.

Thus, in anticipation of my move, I began hunting online for potential fossil sites in Pennsylvania. In this endeavor I discovered The Fossil Forum. Through this forum, I discovered not only a huge community of avid fossil hunters, experts, and enthusiasts, but also that North Carolina has some of the most amazing shark tooth sites in the country.

"Self," says I, "it's bad enough that you've been here so long without discovering North Carolina's fossil sites - but now you are leaving? I forbid you (myself) from leaving until you have visited these sites. Got it?"

It was decided - the July fourth weekend was my only free one from now until the move, thus I would make it a fossil-hunting weekend. I would spend Friday in Aurora, NC and Saturday at Green's Mill Run, a creek in Greenville, NC.

As fate would have it (though we will soon see that the result would have been the same with any weekend, fate or no) a dude by the name of MikeDOTB (Michael Taggert) on the Fossil Forum, was also making the exact same trip this weekend. We decided to meet at the shark-digging piles at the Aurora Fossil Museum on Friday (Note to parents in NC - TAKE YOUR KIDS HERE! Free digging teeth by the thousands to their little hearts' content). Mike said he would be there by 7AM and I would try to get there by 9AM (it's a 3.5 hour drive for me).

NOTE: See Mike's Trip Report here - he has some amazing shark teeth!

I was too excited. I couldn't sleep at all the night before. So I slid out of bed and out the door at 3AM arriving at the piles in Aurora by 6:30AM. (The piles are Pungo River Formation sediment - age ~18-22 million years -  donated by the nearby PCS phosphate mine).

It was just me. Not a soul in sight anywhere. Alone - in a beautiful dawn with giant piles of Miocene sediment to sift through at my leisure.

I saw my first tooth within about ten seconds of glancing at the piles. My collection grew fast and linearly from that point onward. Before too very long, a nice man showed up to sift as well. It turned out that he was a Fossil Forum member too (runner50) - a Kansas Science teacher on a trip around the country to spread his recently deceased wife's ashes at their favorite locations (including St. Claire, Pennsylvania which has some amazing fern fossils, which he showed me). Many of the ancient teeth he was collecting were for his students/class. Despite the sadness of his tale, it was incredibly heartening to meet such a man teaching in Kansas, a place we all probably know needs good science teachers!

In the wild

In "the wild"

Mike showed up later than he had planned, but as soon as he got there we hit another nearby pile, meeting a guy named Brian in the process. We chatted for quite a few hours as the three of us sifted for teeth in a couple different locations. Brian, another Fossil Forum member, gave me a dolphin vertebra among other things.

Dolphin Vertebra - Thanks Brian!!

Dolphin Vertebra - Thanks Brian!!

Fossil enthusiasts are awesome people, based on the few I've met!

Mike, Brian, and Me - sifting the piles in Aurora, NC

Mike, Brian, and Me - sifting the piles in Aurora, NC

Mike, showing how its done with his giant 1/2 mesh screen

Mike, showing how it's done with his giant 1/2'' mesh screen

The piles

The piles

I almost look like a real paleontologist. Or not...

I almost look like a real paleontologist. Or not...

Before the day was up I had amassed a huge pile of little shark teeth, though no lunkers had given themselves up. I had already watched in envy as Mike pulled several beautiful teeth from the piles. However, I wasn't really jealous, as I was too excited from the insane numbers of teeth I  was finding with my smaller 1/4" mesh screen. After about 13 hours straight (no lunch break or anything), darkness began to loom. So Mike decided to collapse the pile we had been digging into. Wet internal sediment began falling and we both began picking through it as more fell. In about a third of a second a shiny glint caught my eye in the muddy dirt. I snapped at it like a greedy hungry chicken.

It was a big Extinct Giant Mako (Isurus hastalis)!

Extinct Giant Mako make-o me happy

Extinct Giant Mako make-o me happy

Also, it had a small bit of feeding damage at the very tip (which makes it only cooler to me). Now go back and compare that to my first teeth from Topsail...

Without further ado, I give you the rest of my collection from Friday, filled with makos, tigers, sand tigers, snaggletooths, cow sharks, and even one small  nearly complete tooth and some pieces of megatoothed sharks (C. megalodon and/or chubitensis).

Note: I have zero tooth ID skills, so forgive any errors. There are almost certainly teeth "out of place"! I arranged these pretty quickly.

(Click for larger)

The Catch

The Multi-Million Year Old Catch

Arent they pretty?

Aren't they pretty?

A few of these were given to me by Mike - I don't remember which ones. Thanks Mike! He also gave me the coolest thing I now own...keep reading.

Tigers and Snaggletooths

Snaggletooths and Tigers

Sand Tigers et al

Sand Tigers et al

Megalodon/Chubiitensis?

Megalodon/Chubitensis?

Makos, Giant megalodon chunck, and others...

Makos, giant megalodon chunk, and others...

Lemon sharks and others?

Requiems, Coppers, Hammerheads? No idea...

Broken cow sharks

Broken cow sharks

Ray dental plates (for grinding munchies)

Ray dental plates (for grinding munchies)

The little guys (Mike estimated ~1200 total teeth)

The little guys (Mike estimated ~1200 total teeth)

Did you know a single shark can go through 30,000 teeth in a lifetime?

Did you know a single shark can go through 30,000 teeth in a lifetime?

And of course, I found some other cool stuff as well...

Shark Vertebrae

Shark Vertebrae

How cool is that?

How cool is that?

Coral

Coral

Love the detail in these things!

Love the detail in these things!

So I had a great haul - and searing back and arms as payment to Mother Nature for her bounty. But back pain or no, we had another whole day to go.

Mike and I high-tailed it to Greenville and crashed at the Motel 6, after spending at least an hour rinsing and gawking at our fossils. Mike gave me most of his teeth, except for the near perfect ones he deemed fitting for his collection. What an awesome dude!

Then again, this is a guy who has 30,000 teeth! Also, he seemed to know every single shark species, their scientific names, whom is thought to have begat whom evolutionarily, and he could instantly tell the ID of each tooth. Oh yeah, and remember how I said "Fate" had led me to want this trip at the exact same time that Mike announced that he was planning a trip? Yeah, well, he has gone on this trip almost every weekend since January.

Yeah - he's an enthusiast alright... Thanks Mike - you rock!

We awoke the next morning and headed for the dirty, trash-filled, broken glass-laden creek running near East Carolina University campus known as "Green's Mill Run." This place is famous for yielding big megalodons and great whites (and ancient soft drink bottles and bongs). The creek cuts through layers from the cretaceous to the pliocene, so things found in it can range from about 2.5 to 145 million years old!

The story was much the same at "GMR". I found quite a few great teeth (though I didn't feel as inclined to pick up every tiny tooth after the previous day), including another awesome Mako.

This was while I was still clean...

This was while I was still clean...

Mike found an AMAZING great white, and lot's of other great teeth - many of which he gave to me.

Mikes Great Whites - beautiful

Mike's Great Whites

I sat and watched an awesome freshwater eel hunting minnows in one beautifully sunny pool - a first for me. We didn't have freshwater eels in NW Arkansas (that I'm aware of).

Mike found and gave me what I easily consider the coolest fossil I now own (he already has several): the fossilized inner ear bone of a whale. What kind? not a clue.

Whales inner earbone

Whale's inner earbone

We visited one particular spot in the creek that cuts through this crazy shell layer filled with huge scallops and various mollusks.

Sea Scallop (as opposed to land scallop)

Fossil Sea Scallop (as opposed to land scallop)

Some sort of big bivalve - and WHOLE!

Some sort of big bivalve - whole and heavy!

By 6PM my back and arms would not let me sift a single more shovel load. Thus we called it a day.

Here's the total haul from Saturday:

The GMR Catch

The GMR Catch

What would have been HUGE megalodons, a very nice Mako, and a root-less great white

What would have been HUGE megalodons, a very nice Mako, and a rootless great white

The Makos and the White

The Makos and the White

The other shark teeth

The other shark teeth

Another cool fossil that exists by the millions in GMR is the belemnite. Belemnites were cephalopods related to modern cuttlefish. Only one part of it's body is normally fossilized: a calcite rod in it's body that assists in maintaining proper buoyancy. These things are just cool looking - orange and long and pointy, with a translucent character in the water.

Fossilized Belemnite guards (or rostrum)

Fossilized Belemnite guards (or rostrum)

And finally, the creek has quite a lot of pieces of whalebone:

Fossilized whale bone

Fossilized whale bone (and a cretaceous oyster - according to Mike)

All in all, this was by far the coolest natural history excursion I've been on (or perhaps second best behind a trip to Big Bend where I found an ammonite 4 feet in diameter - I left it there).  If you read this far - I hope you enjoyed my tale. If you didn't...well... you can't see this anyway.

The total weekend haul!

The total weekend haul!

Cat included for scale :)

Cat included for scale :)

Next up: fossil hunting in Pennsylvania in the next month or two! When exactly or where I don't know. But it will be fun!

2Jul/09Off

Grandpa’s Pet Therapod

nope - not a fake at all...

nope - not a fake at all...

I hang out online sometimes with a bunch of like-minded fossil-enthusiasts (The Fossil Forum).

Tonight somebody posted this:

Just watched the new this evening and they were talking about a dig going on right now outside of Glen Rose, on the McFall ranch. The news showed the footprints of the therapod and the human prints together. It was interesting. For report go to cbs11tv.com

So I mosied over to the Dallas, TX CBS news site and found the article "Local City Known As Dinosaur Capital Of Texas, by Arezow Doost."

Sounds innocuous enough for a title, right?  Then I read the first three sentences:

"Did you ever think that there were dinosaurs in North Texas?

As it turns out, this is one of the most prolific areas for dinosaur tracks in the state. One group of scientists have even found tracks dating back millions of years."

Read that last sentence again:

"One group of scientists have even found tracks dating back millions of years."

Cause, you know, all those other groups found tracks that weren't millions of years old...
(for those of you who missed out on elementary school, dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous sixty-five million years ago.)

Absolutely hilarious...and mind-numbingly maddening.

After reading a bit more, then you learn what it is really about:

"Scientists believe that one of the most unique findings is human prints dating back to the same period as the dinosaur prints. "We are looking for the truth," said Baugh. "We don't want anything else but the truth.""

I rolled my eyes. Obviously, I had a feeling what I would find out with a little search, but I decided to check out the scientist quoted in the piece, because I thought it was a bit odd that he said "We are looking for the truth. We don't want anything else but the truth."

You see, that is a very non-scientist thing to say in a media piece, and it instantly threw up a red flag to me. I say this because when one is actually in the practice of being a good scientist, a statement like that is like a commercial fisherman saying "no really, we're just out here to catch fish." What else would a fisherman be fishing in the ocean for? If you're a scientist, a statement like that is less than unnecessary.

Yeah this guy, Carl Baugh, is a young earth creationist discredited in the scientific community and with a questionable education. He is obviously seeking to prove his own wrong beliefs - not actually do what good scientists do, which is let the data speak for themselves. Check this out for some rather hilarious reading on Baugh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Baugh

Sigh...it is Texas after all (I was born and raised in east Texas, FYI)

As an added moronic bonus, if you look at the url of the story you'll see that it's filed under "pets."
(http://cbs11tv.com/pets/Texas.Dinosaur.Capital.2.1069336.html).

What kind of of idiots are running that station?

One thing about the fossil record - it's insanely consistent across both time and continental space, if fragmentary. And it has consistently shown us that human and therapod existence is quite a few tens of millions of years apart.

Hell, mammals were barely existent back then, compared to today. But primates? LOL - no.

***

Side note: I'm going fossil hunting in Aurora, NC tomorrow and at Greens Mill Run in Greenville, NC on Saturday!!  Shark teeth here I come. Please just let me find a megalodon.

12Apr/09Off

Waking the Baby Mammoth – a Tale of Science Bringing the Past to Life

Waking the Baby Mammoth

Waking the Baby Mammoth (Yuri to the far right)

"Only a handful have ever been found before. But none like her. Her name is Lyuba. A 1-month-old baby mammoth, she walked the tundra about 40,000 years ago and then died mysteriously. Discovered by a reindeer herder, she miraculously re-appeared on a riverbank in northwestern Siberia in 2007. She is the most perfectly preserved woolly mammoth ever discovered. And she has mesmerized the scientific world with her arrival - creating headlines across the globe. Everyone wants to know... how did she die? What can she tell us about life during the ice age and the Earth's changing climate? Will scientists be able to extract her DNA, and what secrets will it uncover?" - NGC

Waking the Baby Mammoth, a new program by the National Geographic Channel premiering Sunday, April 26th at 9PM, tells the tale of a single accidental discovery of a frozen baby mammoth in the Siberian tundra and how this discovery has enriched our understanding of these extinct magnificent beasts. (My quick review: 5 stars. watch it! it's beautiful and fascinating.)

However, this is not a standard paleontological nature show about mammoths in general or what life was like during the Pleistocene. Nor is this program purely about the science behind this bountiful discovery, though the arduous nature and reality of the scientific process is certainly one of the show's stars. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of this program is its focus on the one man and his strange culture (from an American perspective) that led to the discovery of one of the most important findings in mammoth biology. Waking the Baby Mammoth is as much an education on the hardy nature, harsh lifestyle, and animist beliefs of the reindeer herding Nemets nomads of Siberia as it is a show about the mammoth.

Without spilling too many details, the show begins with the incredibly fortuitous discovery of Lyuba, a 40,000 year old mammoth calf, by the nomadic Yuri Khudi (and his sons), a man whose animism dictates that disturbing the remains of the dead will lead to a curse. Too often with such paleontological findings as this, the preserved creature would be dug up and put on the market, leading to irreversible decomposition and the loss of a treasure trove of valuable information. However, Yuri had enough understanding and foresight to contact authorities in Russia, which began the intensive examination and retrieval of Lyuba (including a short drama during which Lyuba disappeared due to thievery). It is implied though not fully explained that Yuri had some inkling of what he had found - in fact he believed that the corpse had been put in his path for a reason, though he dared not disturb it himself.

The program subsequently follows a very well-done modern scientific storyline, detailing the scientific process and hurdles in understanding from whence Lyuba came, how she died, and what she can tell us about her Pleistocene life. That being said, apart from specific experiments involving high tech C-T scans, internal tissue extraction via some remarkable endoscopy, and dental examinations, the program does not delve overly deep into the intricate data. It's impossible to watch the work on Lyuba without feeling the anxiety the researchers must have felt in getting everything done right the first time on so precious a specimen.

From my own scientist perspective, I think the program goes as deep as it needed to portray the scientific importance of Lyuba's discovery. More importantly, the show succeeded best at precisely what it is intended to do: to bring drama and a deep emotional human connection to a quite amazing story. Throughout the program, we are presented with many truly stunning 3D animations of Lyuba and her mother. In cinematic form fitting with the story's message, Lyuba has been brought to life as an active furry baby mammoth tromping along next to researchers as they contemplate the frozen carcass' secrets. The visuals are beautiful, as the light shines off the baby's fur at just the right angles and her shadows dance in just the right way to really make her come alive - like a corporeal ghost watching her own ancient body bring her back to life in our own minds. Some of the more touching scenes involve Yuri himself near the end.  A full year after his initial discovery, he was finally given the chance to suit up in aseptic surgical gear and join the researchers in the lab to witness first hand what his discovery meant to the rest of the world so foreign to him. It's hard to imagine what must have been going through this relatively "simple" man's mind, but his own expressions make it clear that he had come to understand the importance of his discovery and its impact as a blessing - not a curse - on our understanding of life's history. In his final farewell we see him and the animated Lyuba together in a quite touching cinematic juxtaposition of this nomadic reindeer herder and his now eternal connection to baby Lyuba.

Waking the Baby Mammoth is a tale that depicts the contrasting of cultures, worldviews, and personal beliefs of humanity amidst the backdrop of a seminal scientific discovery. Where this program succeeds remarkably well is in making the viewer understand the integral importance of these disparate cultures and the fortuitous convergence of good fortunes that allowed Lyuba to give us a new view of a lifeform long lost to us.

It is in this sense that NatGeo has truly woken the baby mammoth and placed her firmly within our modern human minds and hearts.

Be sure to check it out on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, April 26th at 9PM. Lyuba will also grace the cover of the May edition of National Geographic Magazine on newstands April 28th.

Christie over at Observations of a Nerd also has a glowing review up now.

Once again I'd like to thank Minjae Ormes (Digital PR Consultant for NatGeo) for 1) the opportunity to review the NGC programs and 2) for being so cool in our communications.

If your interested, also check out my recent review of NatGeo's Kingdom of the Blue Whale.

The National Geographic Press Release

A MAMMOTH SURPRISE.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNEL'S WAKING THE BABY MAMMOTH FOLLOWS A GLOBAL FORENSIC INVESTIGATION INTO THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE BEST-PRESERVED BABY MAMMOTH EVER DISCOVERED

Scientists Embark on a Paleo-Detective Expedition to Reveal the Secrets of this 40,000-Year-Old Phenomenon, as Centuries-Old Indigenous Culture Meets Modern-Day Science

"This baby looks like you could snap your fingers and she would wake up and walk."

Narrated by Award-Winning Actor Victor Garber,
Waking the Baby Mammoth
Premieres Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 9 p.m. ET/PT

(WASHINGTON, D.C. - APRIL 1, 2009) Only a handful have ever been found before.  But none like her.  Her name is Lyuba.  A 1-month-old baby mammoth, she walked the tundra about 40,000 years ago and then died mysteriously.  Discovered by a reindeer herder, she miraculously re-appeared on a riverbank in northwestern Siberia in 2007.  She is the most perfectly preserved woolly mammoth ever discovered.  And she has mesmerized the scientific world with her arrival - creating headlines across the globe.  Everyone wants to know ... how did she die?  What can she tell us about life during the ice age and the Earth's changing climate?  Will scientists be able to extract her DNA, and what secrets will it uncover?

Now, from behind the headlines, National Geographic Channel's (NGC) Waking the Baby Mammoth sets out around the world on a cutting-edge forensic investigation into Lyuba's life and death, 10,000 years after most populations of her species became extinct.  Narrated by award-winning actor Victor Garber, the two-hour special premiering Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 9 p.m. ET/PT tells Lyuba's incredible story with insight from her indigenous Siberian rescuers and the scientific community so captivated by her, as a centuries-old nomadic tribe meets modern-day science in this fascinating cultural exchange.  The discovery of this baby mammoth gives researchers their best chance yet to build a genetic map of a species that vanished at the end of the last ice age.  Through her DNA, Lyuba could finally explain why the prehistoric giants were driven to extinction, share clues about their migrations, and perhaps shed light on climate change.  Could she even some day help to resurrect mammoths?  With research funded in part by the National Geographic Society, Lyuba's journey will also be the May cover story of National Geographic magazine.

Filmed on three continents, Waking the Baby Mammoth presents a 21st century paleo-detective expedition that takes viewers from the tundra of remote Siberia to cities in Japan, Europe and North America as we join a nomad and leading scientists to "awaken" this startlingly lifelike baby.  We travel back to the ice age with Lyuba via CGI animation and then fast-forward to the present to reveal the latest innovations in woolly mammoth research, including advanced computed tomography (CT) scanning and DNA analysis, searching for clues to her species' life, extinction and scientific future.

Waking the Baby Mammoth first follows paleontologist Dan Fisher and mammoth "hunter" Bernard Buigues back to the spot where Lyuba was discovered in May 2007.  She was found on a snowy riverbank by Yuri Khudi, a nomadic reindeer herder in Russia's remote arctic Yamal-Nenets region.  Named after Yuri's wife, Lyuba was turned over to the scientists at the Salekhard Museum in Siberia, which is where the next chapter in her journey began.

The film next accompanies Lyuba to Japan's Jikei University School of Medicine, where her body undergoes three-dimensional computer mapping that produces detailed images of her internal organs and structure, providing scientists with insight into the possible cause of her death.  With all but her tail and woolly coat of fur, the CT scans showed that the 200-pound baby was in excellent health when she died, with healthy fat tissue and no damage to her skeleton.  The scientists conclude that Lyuba met her end by drowning or falling into deep mud, as there are large amounts of sediment packed into her trunk, mouth and trachea.  They believe that her final muddy resting place became part of the region's permafrost, preventing decay and keeping her remarkably intact, down to her perfect trunk and largely unblemished skin.

Researchers have long debated whether woolly mammoths' extinction was due to climate change or overhunting by humans.  Now they hope to compare her DNA with that of other mammoths from the ice age to trace the migrations of mammoth populations over time and help solve the mystery of her species' disappearance.

Finally we travel with Lyuba to the Zoological Institute in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to follow the scientists as they conduct an autopsy and analyze her tissue, bone and teeth to reveal insight into the structure of mammoth organs and muscles.  Their study is able to confirm Lyuba's age, her diet, the season of her death and environmental conditions for her mammoth herd in Siberia during her short life.  In fact, they are even able to extract pollen that remained in her lungs, which can be used to reconstruct prehistoric plants that grew on the site where Lyuba died.  The bone and tissue samples that are collected will also be used for future DNA analysis and shared among mammoth research teams worldwide, so experts across the globe can learn from her.

For mammoth scientists, discoveries like this truly come once in a lifetime.  As Alexei Tikhonov of the Russian Academy of Science says, "Lyuba is a creature straight out of a fairy tale.  When you look at her, it's hard to understand how she could have stayed in such good condition for 40,000 years ... This is the most amazing discovery since we've been studying mammoths."

For more information on the best-preserved baby mammoth ever discovered, visit natgeotv.com/mammoth beginning in early April 2009.

Waking the Baby Mammoth is produced by Woollyworks, Inc.  Producer is Adrienne Ciuffo and director is Pierre Stine. Special thanks to The International Mammoth Committee.  For National Geographic Channel, executive producer is Chris Valentini; senior vice president of special programming is Michael Cascio and executive vice president of content is Steve Burns.

National Geographic Channel

Based at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., the National Geographic Channel (NGC) is a joint venture between National Geographic Ventures (NGV) and Fox Cable Networks (FCN).  Since launching in January 2001, NGC initially earned some of the fastest distribution growth in the history of cable and more recently the fastest ratings growth in television.  The network celebrated its fifth anniversary January 2006 with the launch of NGC HD which provides the spectacular imagery that National Geographic is known for in stunning high-definition.  NGC has carriage with all of the nation's major cable and satellite television providers, making it currently available to nearly 70 million homes.  For more information, please visit www.natgeotv.com.

MEDIA CONTACTS:

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Chris Albert, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6526, CAlbert@natgeochannel.com

National Broadcast: Dara Klatt, 202-912-6720, Dara.Klatt@natgeochannel.com

National & Local Radio: Johanna Ramos Boyer, 703-646-5137, Johanna@jrbcomm.com

National Print: Christie Parell, The Fratelli Group, 202-822-9491, CParell@fratelli.com

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Photos: Christine Elasigue, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6708, celasigu@ngs.org

23Mar/09Off

Fossil Challenge #1 – Marine Carboniferous Invertebrates from the Ozarks

I am a fossil collector.

Ever since I was a small child I have been collecting fossils.  In fact, I can trace my own fascination with biology directly to my discovery that the very house in which I lived (actually a trailer back then), was set upon land literally made of these long dead and formerly ocean-dwelling ancestors and distant cousins. I'll never forget the awe that crept into my little brain as I tried to imagine enormous oceans covering my forested Ozark mountains.

When I was very young, my Mamaw (paternal grandmother) gave me a simple large toolbox for Christmas - a toolbox with a myriad little compartments intended for the sole purpose of housing my growing "rock collection."

For years I filled this box and a couple more with fossils, rocks, gems, shed snake skins, feathers, arrowheads, seashells, and all manner of relatively non-decomposable animal and plant remains - almost all of which I found myself.

The time came when I was not content to let my collection sit in toolboxes in a closet. Thus I built a shadowbox coffee table during graduate school (with super thick glass so my cats could leap onto it from 10 feet away without smashing my fossils...er...the glass and themselves). Now my collection fills my coffee table and almost every bookshelf in my home.

Shadowbox Coffee Table

Shadowbox Coffee Table (click for larger)

Coffee Table Fossil Collection (& other stuff - click for larger)

Coffee Table Fossil Collection (& other stuff - click for larger)

Coffee Table Fossils

Coffee Table Fossils (& other stuff - click for larger)

I've amassed a decent collection - I'm proud of it anyway, though any paleontologist or geologist would almost certainly laugh at it. Most of them are simple ocean invertebrates, as most of them came from Carboniferous Period limestone of the Ozark Mountains (the entire region is pretty much made of pure crinoids).

All of the above being said, I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I don't know that much about many of my fossils.

Thus, I am starting this series of posts to catalog my entire collection and to see what the experts out there can teach me and all of us about some of our long lost branches of life. Please, if you can add any information whatsoever, it would be much appreciated - i.e. taxonomy, factoids, comments, conjecture, anything. And please point out if I have identified anything incorrectly - a very real possibility.

For this first installment, I am going to begin with my most recent additions - all found this weekend in Bella Vista, Arkansas where I returned for my mom's wedding.

A hat tip goes out to my four nieces (ages 9 to 12) for helping me find them.

Location: Bella Vista, Benton County, Arkansas

Bella Vista, AR fossil site (within 20 meters). Click to go to Google Maps version.

Bella Vista, AR fossil site (within 30 meters). Click to go to Google Maps version. Fossils found mostly in gravel uplifted by roots at the bases of trees.

Fossils

What I know: based on my limited understanding of the region's geology, these rocks are primarily limestone from the carboniferous period (and I believe they are towards the boundary between Pennsylvanian and Mississippian - but I could easily be wrong. I know very very little about geology).

Note: You can click on all images for higher res/quality images. These are highly compressed for bandwidth. I've tried to give multiple views of each fossil.

#1 - Crinoid

Lateral view of the inside of a crinoid.

Lateral view of the inside of a crinoid

#2 - Productid Brachiopod - Order Strophomenida

Update: information provided by Chris Nedin, of Ediacaran: "looks like a productid brachiopod. Order Strophomenida, Suborder Productidina. They can be distinguished by being large, very rounded, with a thick, heavy shell, and along the top, a very straight hinge line, with almost nothing appearing above the hinge line. An example is here at image 408."

Cool unknown mollusc shell

Productid Brachiopod

Cool unknown shell

Productid Brachiopod

Cool unknown shell - view of hinge

Productid Brachiopod - view of hinge

#3 - Spirifid Brachiopod - Order Spiriferida

Update: information provided by Chris Nedin, of Ediacaran: "an internal mold of a spirifid brachiopod, Spiriferida, Suborder Spirifieridina. The shell has been filled with sediment and that has hardened. Then the original shell has dissolved away, leaving the sediment inside, which is what you see. The shape is caused because the shell tapers down to a point away from the centre, and curls somewhat. An example is here."

Unknown shell - top

Spirifid Brachiopod - top

Unknown shell - side

Spirifid Brachiopod - side (previous remark: "What the hell is this thing?!")

Unknown shell- side

Spirifid Brachiopod - side

#4 - Rhynchonellid Brachiopod

Update: information provided by Chris Nedin, of Ediacaran: "I think the brachiopod here is a rhynchonellid. Order rhynchonellidida. An example is here."

Variety of brachiopod shells, crinoids, and coral

Rhynchonellid Brachiopods, crinoids, and coral.

Variety of brachiopod shells, crinoids, and coral

Rhynchonellid Brachiopods, crinoids, and coral.

#5 - Spirifid Brachiopod

Update: information provided by Chris Nedin, of Ediacaran: "another spirifid, this time weathered (see the spirifid link above)."

Brachiopod shell

Spirifid Brachiopod

Brachiopod shell

Spirifid Brachiopod

Brachiopod shell

Spirifid Brachiopod

#6 - Crinoid

Crinoid disc impression

Crinoid disc impression (and some tiny disc interiors)

Crinoid disc impression

Crinoid disc impression (and some tiny disc interiors)

#7 - Possible Spirifid Brachiopod

Update: information provided by Chris Nedin, of Ediacaran: "not sure, maybe another spirifid."

Unknown shell - top

Possible Spirifid Brachiopod - top

Unknown shell - top

Possible Spirifid Brachiopod - top

Unknown shell - underside

Possible Spirifid Brachiopod - underside

#8 - Shelly strata

Cross section of shelly strata

I just like this rock because you can see the shells and strata through cross section

Cross section of shelly strata

I just like this rock because you can see the shells and strata through cross section

I know - these aren't exactly impressive specimens. However, I already had them unpacked and laid out so I figured I'd start with these. I definitely have some other cool ones to come in future posts.

If you know of any fossil aficionados, please send them this way, as I would really like to know at least a little bit more about my collection. If any of you end up being particular helpful, I may just send you one of my awesome limestone rocks made of pure crinoid discs (they're much cooler than those above), assuming you don't already have some or consider them too bland :)