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.
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.)
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!
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.
Fossil enthusiasts are awesome people, based on the few I've met!
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)!
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)
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.
And of course, I found some other cool stuff as well...
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.
Mike found an AMAZING great white, and lot's of other great teeth - many of which he gave to me.
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.
We visited one particular spot in the creek that cuts through this crazy shell layer filled with huge scallops and various mollusks.
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:
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.
And finally, the creek has quite a lot of pieces of whalebone:
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.
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!
As an actively researching scientist, I generally call this blog a "science blog." However, I would argue that most scientists are first and foremost "naturalists." As such, much of my time outside of the lab is not necessarily spent dwelling on all the intricate details of my own research (I try to limit how much "work" I actually bring home - though it is rarely further than a few action potentials away from consciousness). No, much of my time is spent pondering and observing nature. My drives to work usually consist of me staring out the window looking for red-tailed hawks, deer, and any of the other wildlife common along NC backroads and interstate 40, with occasional glances back to the road and traffic.
The point is: I love nature. Paying attention to it is first-nature to me, having been raised as a country boy in the Ozark mountain forests. It is for this reason that I also consider this a "nature blog." In fact, I recently joined the Nature Blog Network - THE community for nature bloggers - which was created by the wonderful Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds and I and the Bird fame (note: Mike is in Guatemala at a birding conference right this minute - be sure to look out for what is sure to be an amazing photography collection and story when he returns).
In tribute to my own inclusion in the Nature Blog Network, I give you the first in a series of posts consisting of my own observations from taking walks into nature. I've been posting similar things for a while now (check out the SWEET footage I got of a Great Blue Heron with a catfish recently), but I'd like to make this a formal posting event for me - especially since spring is looming and I will no doubt be making many forays into the natural world.
Although it is still very wintery here in North Carolina and wildlife is relatively sparse (I miss the bugs and other invertebrates...) there is still much to see if one looks closely enough.
In fact, I had barely stepped outside my front door when I saw one of my all time favorite creatures: the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus). When I was a small child I read some tale of a now-forgotten Native American and his spirit or guardian animal - the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Ever since then the hawk has been one of my favorite animals. If I had a "spirit animal" it would be a hawk. Yes, it's insanely silly, but I always pretend like it's a good luck sign when I see one - the key word here is pretend. Really, I love all raptors.
As I walked down my driveway, I heard a squawking sound coming from my neighbors yard. When I looked up, I saw two red-shouldered hawks - one in a nest and the other in a nearby tree. I quickly tried to photograph them, though they were still about 40 yards away. I have a great digital camera, though it is NOT a professional DSLR. However, the 12X optical zoom and decent manual options are more than good enough for me until I have cash to burn.
As soon as I snapped the pic above, both of them took flight. I tried to get an in-flight shot, but the one below was the best I could do in the 1.5 seconds I had before they were gone. Luckily, it was good enough for me to identify it as a red-shouldered rather than a red-tailed. My neighbor (Flyzeyes, who has some pretty awesome nature photography himself) and I both hope that the nest is theirs and that they will return - we shall see.
I mosied on past my neighbors house and through the woods behind it, where a small pond lies hidden within the forest. The pond is surrounded by beaver-chopped trees from last spring. Here are two shelf fungus-laden remnants of the beaver's work:
The pond overflows over a small levy into a large swamp below it.
Flitting throughout the trees, flocks of tiny birds surround the entire marsh. I managed to get one decent picture (they tended to keep a good distance between them and me), and through my trusty bird guide I'm almost certain they were
Swamp Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) Note: I had it wrong initially - so much for my bird ID skills... thanks to Mark Shields! The lateral eye-mark and streaked breast with dark spot in the middle is the give-away sign.
The swamp was also surrounded by one type of bush (I have no idea what kind) covered with cool looking pollen pods (see my non-existent botany lingo and knowledge?).
One of my favorite things about wet areas (like swamps and marshes) are that there tend to be various epiphytic species everywhere (epiphytes = things that live on other things - usually on plants. Most are not generally parasitic, but just use plants for structure, though parasites like mistletoe are still considered epiphytic in habitat. Small plants, algae, fungi, and lichens are among the most common - or visible anyway - epiphytes).
I also managed to snap two different woodpecker species - both from fairly great distances, so the images aren't superb. I'm almost 100% certain of both of their identities. The first is a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), and the second is a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).
After watching the birds for a while, I made my way to my own back yard, where I found a returning Lamb's Ear (Stachys sp.)
And finally, I took a few photographs of one of two native North Carolina orchid species I've found on my property. The first is the Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor). What's interesting about this species is that they only bear one leaf - and only in the fall/winter. Once flowering season arrives in the summer, the leaf dies and they send up a shoot filled with tiny flowers. In the fall, the flower stem dies back, to be replaced by the single lone leaf, which has a bright purple underside.
Unfortunately, after a while of searching I was unable to find any of the second orchid - which I know I had several of last year. This second native orchid is quite a beautiful plant - and it has an awesome name: the Rattlesnake Plantain - or Rattlesnake Orchid (Goodyera pubescens). We've had 2 years of pretty bad drought, and an unseasonably cold winter - so I am hoping they have not all died. Perhaps I will find more in the spring. Here's a picture of some I took last September. Pretty amazing foliage pattern, no?
And with that, my first nature walk of the year is concluded. I cannot wait for everything to start blooming and for all the insects and other crawly critters come out of the woodwork. Keep an eye out here for more nature photos and stories to come...
If you know the identity of anything above, or if I've misidentified something, please let me know.
Tell me - what's cooler than talking about science?
How about hanging out with a bunch of elementary school kids?
And what's cooler than that?
Hanging out with a bunch of elementary school kids talking about their own science at an elementary science fair!
Yes, on January 30th I was privileged to be one of six judges at the first annual Orange County Science Fair, in Hillsborough, North Carolina. I find it a little dismaying that the fair didn't exist before this year, considering that orange county has a generally highly regarded public school system and contains the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. However, the event turned out to be a great success thanks to the planning of Dr. Paul Medina, Science Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Training Initiative in Biomedical and Biological Sciences (TIBBS) at UNC, Tara Owens of Pathways Elementary, and Bruce Middleton, Math/Science Coordinator of Orange County Schools.
The first project I judged was not an actual experiment, but a report put together by an insanely adorable and equally shy little girl on the family of beavers that have made a home in her backyard pond. It took a little coaxing to get it out of her, but it turned out that she had done quite a bit of background research on beavers, telling me all about how they build dams and lodges, the purposes of each, their general habits, etc. In fact, she taught me something I didn't know about beavers! I initially asked her how beavers can chew so many trees without their teeth wearing down (knowing as I do that all rodents have continuously growing teeth ((rodent tooth trivia - if laboratory mice aren't given appropriate food to chew on, their teeth can occlude their mouths leading to starvation)) ), to which she replied (paraphrased) "they have a hard coating on their teeth that protects them - that's why their teeth are orange."
I never knew why beavers had orange teeth!
Of course, the fair had your obligatory volcanoes (two of them) and a balloon blown up on a soda bottle with baking soda and vinegar (remember the fun of baking soda and vinegar?). However, in a sign of the times, though I'm not sure what this sign means, neither the volcanoes or the balloon involved a live demonstration with baking soda or vinegar. Apparently, the kids didn't want to make a mess at school and their parents didn't want to make a mess at home in preparation. C'mon! Messy science is FUN!
In another display of the fact that I am getting old, two separate projects dealt with the effects of playing video games on the body (blood pressure and pulse). Not that I didn't play tons of video games in my childhood - but there were certainly no science projects dealing with the effects of 8-bit Mario Brother's on the body. The results: different games had different effects on different people. I was particularly interested in the study dealing with the effects of playing "Guitar Hero" - I'm a "Rockband" and "Guitar Hero" fanatic!
Several different studies asked how various conditions affect plant germination or growth. One of the more entertaining studies asked the question "Do plants grow better when fed water or Dr. Pepper?" The results were as expected.
Another study I found particularly entertaining (and well designed) asked the question, "Can Predator Decoys Change the Feeding Patterns of Birds?" The student had a fake owl and a fake cat, which were used to test the hypothesis at a bird feeder. She controlled the experiment and measured bird numbers. As you might expect, the birds were initially deterred by the decoys, but became acclimated within a couple of days. However, the data I found most telling were the final large pictures she had on her poster, which showed the fake owl and cat perched in a tree, staring at a bird feeder full of birds. It was quite hilarious! (Note: I did not actually judge this project due to number assignments).
The winner took the prize by testing various salt concentrations on plant growth under well-controlled conditions. The fair was judged by originality, creativity, and how "scientific" each project was set up. That being said, the main goal was not to judge these kids but to simply encourage their own excitement and inspire them to continue with scientific thinking.
After the elementary judging, two local high school students from East Chapel Hill High gave more serious presentations on work they have done in the Launch into Education about Pharmacology (LEAP) program at Duke. Aaron Krolik presented "Assessing the neuroprotective attributes of nicotine and or caffeine against Parkinson's disease" (using zebrafish), while Suchin Gururangan presented, "Inflammation and Cancer Inhibiting Tumor Progression Through the Cyclo-Oxygenase 2 Pathway." Yeah - that's right - high schoolers!
Of them I have to say WOW!! These kids were not just bright - they were brilliant. The posters they presented were far better than many graduate student poster presentations I've seen. Judging between the two was nigh impossible, though Aaron ended up winning and will proceed to a regional competition. Both of them had extensive knowledge of all the surrounding literature (seriously, how many of us could read and understand all the literature around a particular scientific study at age 16/17?). These kids are definitely going places if they stick with it!
All in all, I found the fair highly enjoyable! It sounds cliched but it was truly great to witness their eyes lighting up at the opportunity to explain what they've learned. That feeling is why I love science so much - which makes it all the more satisfying to see little ones beginning on the same intellectual journey.
Elementary: all students are from Pathways
- 1st: Daniel Mulligan - 5th grader - "Effect of Salt on Plant Germination and Growth"
- 2nd: Mia Frenduto - 5th grader - "When are Birds More Active Feeders?"
- 3rd: Caroline Wilson - 5th grader - "Can Predator Decoys Change the Feeding Habits of Birds?"
- 4th: Meghan O'Shaughnessy and Ellie Wimberly - 5th graders - "Burn Baby Burn"
- 5th: Jace Jordan Cornell - 5th grader - "How Smoke and Carbon Dioxide Affect Plants"
- 6th: Brooke Smith - 5th grader - "Growth of Sunflower Seeds in Different Liquids"
High School: both from East Chapel Hill High
- 1st: Aaron Krolik - "Assessing the neuroprotective attributes of nicotine and or caffeine against Parkinson's disease"
- 2nd: Suchin Gururangan - "Inflammation and Cancer Inhibiting Tumor Progression Through the Cyclo-Oxygenase 2 Pathway"
If any of you are interested in science outreach, I highly recommend you contact your local elementary and find out whether they have similar programs! And if you live in North Carolina, contact Dr. Paul Medina and get involved next year.
Prizes for the winners were donated bythe NC Museum of Life and Science, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, and Kidzu Children’s Museum. Food and drinks for the judges were donated by Panera Bread and Starbucks Coffee (and it was tasty!).