Stories tagged History and Nature of Science

Jul
26
2011

On this day (July 26) in 1879, in a desolate region of southeastern Wyoming, Arthur Lakes, a fossil collector engaged by Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh to oversee his interests in the dinosaur bone beds at Como Bluff, wrote the following passage in his field journal:

"Men came back with report of discovery of very big bones at a spot between Quarries 8 and 9. Heavy thunderstorms hailstones fell the size of hens eggs. Telegraph wires broken.“

Arthur Lakes journal entry July 26, 1879.

Quarry 10 at Como Bluff, Wyoming: The bones of the famous "Brontosaurus excelsus" (Apatosaurus excelsus) were discovered here in 1879. The low ridge making up Como Bluff extends for about 7 miles, and has produced abundant dinosaur, reptile, fish and mammal fossils from the Late Jurassic period.
Quarry 10 at Como Bluff, Wyoming: The bones of the famous "Brontosaurus excelsus" (Apatosaurus excelsus) were discovered here in 1879. The low ridge making up Como Bluff extends for about 7 miles, and has produced abundant dinosaur, reptile, fish and mammal fossils from the Late Jurassic period.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The men mentioned were Bill Reed and Edward Ashley, two other Marsh workers at Como. The new dig site would soon be designated as Quarry 10, and the big bones those of a huge sauropod Marsh would later christen Brontosaurus excelsus. As most of you know by now, the genus name, Brontosaurus, which is Greek for “thunder lizard” would later be demoted to a mere synonym of the previously discovered Apatosaurus.

Apatosaurus vs Brontosaurus sacra: Figure illustrations created under the direction of O. C. Marsh show distinct differences between the sacra of Apatosaurus ajax (left) and "Brontosaurus excelsus" (right). Marsh thought they signified different genera, but didn't realize that the Apatosaurus represented a juvenile specimen and the Brontosaurus an adult one. A quarter-century after their discoveries, Elmer Riggs determined the two dinosaurs were of the same genus. As it grew in size, additional vertebrae of Apatosaurus fused in the sacrum to reinforce its pelvis.
Apatosaurus vs Brontosaurus sacra: Figure illustrations created under the direction of O. C. Marsh show distinct differences between the sacra of Apatosaurus ajax (left) and "Brontosaurus excelsus" (right). Marsh thought they signified different genera, but didn't realize that the Apatosaurus represented a juvenile specimen and the Brontosaurus an adult one. A quarter-century after their discoveries, Elmer Riggs determined the two dinosaurs were of the same genus. As it grew in size, additional vertebrae of Apatosaurus fused in the sacrum to reinforce its pelvis.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Brontosaurus’s species designation, excelsus, means “to exceed in number” and refers to the number of vertebrae in the dinosaur’s sacrum. Marsh’s Apatosaurus ajax had only three fused vertebrae in its sacrum, Brontosaurus had five. You can see what I mean in the side by side comparison of the figures Marsh had made of the fossil remains. That difference led the Yale professor to think he had two separate kinds of animals on his hands. But in truth, and as paleontologist Elmer Riggs declared in 1903, the two dinosaurs were actually the same genus. Although larger, the Apatosaurus, it turns out, was an immature specimen, while "Brontosaurus" was an adult one. It seems, as this very large type of dinosaur grew even larger, two more vertebrae fused into the sacrum to help reinforce the pelvis.

"Thunder Lizard" at the Peabody Museum: "Brontosaurus excelsus" (Apatosaurus excelsus) stands above other denizens discovered at Wyoming's Como Bluff. After its discovery its original name was determined to be scientifically invalid, it remains part of the Yale dinosaur's official record.
"Thunder Lizard" at the Peabody Museum: "Brontosaurus excelsus" (Apatosaurus excelsus) stands above other denizens discovered at Wyoming's Como Bluff. After its discovery its original name was determined to be scientifically invalid, it remains part of the Yale dinosaur's official record.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The sauropod first discovered on this date at Como Bluff is now known as Apatosaurus excelsus. But even though his extracted bones have stood quietly for 80 years at Yale’s Peabody Museum, the Thunder Lizard’s original name remains embedded in our culture. Since “Brontosaurus” is considered an invalid scientific name, it shouldn't be italicize when used but rather bracketed between quotation marks. Personally, I still prefer the name “Brontosaurus”, which Marsh used to describe the sound he imagined the huge dinosaur made while walking across the Jurassic terrain. And doesn’t the original name seem even more fitting since the great Thunder Lizard’s very first entry into human consciousness took place during a heavy thunderstorm?

SOURCES & LINKS
More about paleontologist O. C. Marsh
Apatosaurus ajax information
More about the Apatosaurus/”Brontosaurus” confusion
Apatosaurus (“Brontosaurus”) defined
"Brontosaurus" at Yale's Peabody Museum

Jul
12
2011

The Route: We will be entering at entry point #16 Moose/Portage River and exiting at entry point #43 Bower Trout Lake.   The route was designed to expose us to a wide range of use areas within the BWCAW.
The Route: We will be entering at entry point #16 Moose/Portage River and exiting at entry point #43 Bower Trout Lake. The route was designed to expose us to a wide range of use areas within the BWCAW.Courtesy The Great Pack Out
In honor of National Public Lands Day (9/24/2011), my brother and I are going to spend two weeks paddling over 120 miles across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) documenting and collecting all the trash that we find. My brother and I have been paddling in the BWCAW for 23 years and over the last few years have noticed an increase in the amount of garbage we encounter on portages and at campsites. So we started wondering how much trash is actually out there. Is it isolated to the highly used areas near the edges or endemic to the entire BWCAW? In doing some research on the wilderness we discovered that the BWCAW comprises less then 1% of the U.S. National Wilderness Areas yet receives greater then 10% of the recreational activity. What effect does this recreational density have on the quality of the wilderness?

No one really knows. Studies have not been completed. That’s why my brother and I have decided to check it out. We are going to paddle the BWCAW from west to east documenting, collecting, and packing out all the trash we encounter along the way. We will inventory and catalog everything we find and create trash density maps to aid wilderness resource managers focus education and clean up efforts. Who knows, maybe we will inspire others to clean up the BWCAW next year on National Public Lands Day and every day.

Check out our blog for updates and we'll check in following the trip to report our findings.

Jul
04
2011

Camp Carnegie in Wyoming in 1899: Arthur Coggeshall, sitting far right and donning suspenders, poses for a photograph taken near the Carnegie museum's Sheep Creek quarry in Wyoming. Crews from the American Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum met on the High Plains during the quarrying of Diplodocus carnegii. Standing, left to right: W. D. Mathew, R. S. Lull, H. F. Osborn, W. J. Holland, (unknown on wagon - possibly Willie Reed), Jacob Wortman (with pipe), W. H. Reed. Sitting left to right: Walter Granger, George Mellor, Ira Schallenberger, and  Coggeshall.
Camp Carnegie in Wyoming in 1899: Arthur Coggeshall, sitting far right and donning suspenders, poses for a photograph taken near the Carnegie museum's Sheep Creek quarry in Wyoming. Crews from the American Museum of Natural History and the Carnegie Museum met on the High Plains during the quarrying of Diplodocus carnegii. Standing, left to right: W. D. Mathew, R. S. Lull, H. F. Osborn, W. J. Holland, (unknown on wagon - possibly Willie Reed), Jacob Wortman (with pipe), W. H. Reed. Sitting left to right: Walter Granger, George Mellor, Ira Schallenberger, and Coggeshall.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Back in the summer of 1899, on the Fourth of July, the first bones of a long-dead dinosaur were discovered in the wilds of Wyoming that would soon fire the imagination of the world and popularize dinosaurs in a way that wouldn’t be equaled again until the release of Jurassic Park nearly a century later. The dinosaur would soon bear the name Diplodocus carnegii in honor of Andrew Carnegie, who financed its discovery through his Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Carnegie’s dinosaur would eventually be nicknamed Dippy, but Arthur S. Coggeshall, a major player in its discovery suggested a better name: the Star-Spangled Dinosaur. Coggeshall had a good point. Not just because the celebrated sauropod had been found on Independence Day, but in the ensuing years, Dippy would become one of the greatest ambassadors not only for the growing science of vertebrate paleontology but for the United States itself.

The story of Dippy actually began seven months before in November of 1898 when a full-page error-ridden article appeared in a New York newspaper proclaiming “The Most Colossal Animal Ever on Earth“ had just been dug up in Wyoming. The headline caught the eye of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie and he suddenly decided he wanted the dinosaur (named in the article as Brontosaurus giganteus) for his recently opened Pittsburgh Museum. So in the margin of the paper, Carnegie scribbled a note to William Holland, curator of the museum that read: “can you buy this for Pittsburgh?”

Holland immediately contacted the man mentioned in the article and offered to buy the dinosaur skeleton flat out. The discoverer, Bill Reed of the University of Wyoming, explained that the news story was grossly distorted and riddled with inaccuracies. There was no skeleton, no Brontosaurus giganteus, only a fragment of the end of a very large thighbone he had found in the nearby Freezeout Hills. But Reed, who probably knew the fossil fields of Wyoming better than any man in the state, offered his services to locate and dig up the rest of the skeleton in the next spring after the snow melted.

By the time spring arrived, Reed had resigned his position at the University of Wyoming and was under a one-year contract with the Carnegie museum. This is where Arthur Coggeshall comes into the picture. He and another man, Jacob Wortman, were working in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology of New York’s American Museum of Natural History; Coggeshall as a preparator (a person who prepares fossils for study and display) and Wortman, as a curator. The AMNH was one of finest museum institutes in the country and the Carnegie museum’s main competitor. Coggeshall - at just 25 years old - was considered one of the best preparators of his time, and Wortman was no slouch either. But both men were lured away by Holland (and no doubt Carnegie’s money) and soon joined Reed in Medicine Bow to set out and find dinosaurs for the Carnegie Museum.

The trip to the Freezeout Hills northwest of Medicine Bow was miserable. The horse-drawn wagons, laden with a ton of tools and supplies slogged across the High Plains and had to be unloaded and loaded several times to cross makeshift bridges or ford swollen streams. They eventually reached the site where Reed’s colossal fossil had been dug up, but after nearly two months of searching not much fossil additional material was found, certainly not enough to fill Andrew Carnegie’s museum.

Discouraged the men headed eastward about 30 miles where Reed said he knew of other prospects in the dinosaur-rich Morrison Formation. They arrived in Sheep Creek Basin and set up camp there on July 3, 1899.

The Titans of Paleontology in 1899: Paleontologists from the American Museum drop in on paleontologists working the Carnegie quarry at Sheep Creek in Wyoming. Jacob Wortman crouches next to the Diplodocus bones exposed on the quarry floor. The rest of those present are (L-R) Bill Reed, Albert Thompson, William Holland, Henry F. Osborn, W. D. Mathews, Walter Granger, and R. S. Lull. Arthur Coggeshall may have taken the photo.
The Titans of Paleontology in 1899: Paleontologists from the American Museum drop in on paleontologists working the Carnegie quarry at Sheep Creek in Wyoming. Jacob Wortman crouches next to the Diplodocus bones exposed on the quarry floor. The rest of those present are (L-R) Bill Reed, Albert Thompson, William Holland, Henry F. Osborn, W. D. Mathews, Walter Granger, and R. S. Lull. Arthur Coggeshall may have taken the photo.Courtesy Mark Ryan

The next day their luck suddenly took a change for the better. The exact story of the find gets a little confusing. In a 1951 retelling in Carnegie Magazine, Arthur Coggeshall claims he made the initial discovery.

"It was then that the heartbeats of the writer really became loud,” he wrote, “for it was the best prospect any of us had discovered in over two months of hard and disappointing work, and we did so want to make good with a dinosaur for Mr. Carnegie."

Two other accounts (one by Wortman in 1916, and one by paleontologist C. W. Gilmore in 1936) claim Bill Reed found the first remains, and I think the priority of these claims give them more veracity – especially since Wortman was there. But history like anything else has a way of evolving through time and memory.

Whatever the case, they had finally found a dinosaur, and over the summer the skeleton was exhumed, packed up, and shipped back to Pittsburgh. By coincidence, a flock of scientists from around the country and Canada were roaming the state that summer as part of an event called Fossil Fields Expedition sponsored jointly by the Union Pacific Railroad and University of Wyoming. The railroad offered scientists and academics free passage to Laramie, and Wilbur Knight of the UW gave guided tours to many of the state’s geological and paleontological locations where they could take in the scenery and collect rocks and fossils. Many involved in the expedition stopped by the Carnegie’s Sheep Creek quarry to watch the progress there. Paleontologists from the American Museum of Natural History were also in the area digging up their own dinosaurs at the nearby Bone Cabin Quarry. Some of that crew (including Wortman’s and Coggeshall’s old boss, Henry Fairfield Osborn) made the ten-mile trip for a visit and friendly exchange.

When the field season ended, the Carnegie team returned to Pittsburgh to start the process of preparing the fossils. Over the winter it became apparent that some bones of the Diplodocus were missing so further expeditions were mounted and remains of three more specimens of Diplodocus were gathered from Sheep Creek and the Big Horns region of Wyoming to complete the skeleton.

As Coggeshall and Reed prepared the bones, paleontologist John Bell Hatcher (who had been hired as curator to replace the short-lived Wortman) made an exhaustive study of the fossils and determined the remains were those of a new species, which he named Diplodocus carnegii in honor of the museum’s benefactor. Mr. Carnegie’s friends soon nicknamed the dinosaur, Dippy.

The process of preparing and mounting a dinosaur skeleton for display, especially one that’s 84 feet long is an onerous task, requiring thousands of man-hours and several years to complete. As the Carnegie’s preparator-in-chief, Arthur Coggeshall devised new methods for fossil preparation, and for mounting large dinosaur skeletons that are still used today. He innovated the use of pneumatic hammers and sandblasting in the laboratory for extracting fossil bone from hard rock, and for mounting the Carnegie sauropod, he fashioned a curved steel rod upon which all the vertebrae were assembled. Then, as other bones were added to the skeleton, additional steel was used - as inconspicuously as possible - to reinforce and attach them to the vertebral column.

A dinosaur for Paris: Arthur Coggeshall (sitting at left with legs crossed) poses with workers and William Holland (on Coggeshall's immediate left) at the Paris museum during the mounting of the cast of Dipolodocus carnegii, c. 1908.
A dinosaur for Paris: Arthur Coggeshall (sitting at left with legs crossed) poses with workers and William Holland (on Coggeshall's immediate left) at the Paris museum during the mounting of the cast of Dipolodocus carnegii, c. 1908.Courtesy Library of Congress
But even before Dippy went on display at the Carnegie museum (for which a new wing was being built), the Diplodocus became a sensation worldwide. King Edward VII while visiting Andrew Carnegie at his Skibo Castle in Scotland saw a drawing of the Diplodocus and coveted one for himself. Carnegie obliged the king by having Coggeshall create molds for an exact plaster cast of the dinosaur. Italian sculptors were hired to fashion a few of the missing bones. Since the dinosaur wing of the Carnegie museum was still under construction, Coggeshall and two assistants used his ingenious steel framework to set up and then disassembled a test-mount of the king’s cast in the Pittsburgh Exposition Building. The cast elements were then packed up and shipped to England in 1905. Holland and Coggeshall accompanied the 30 some crates of disassembled bones and supervised the mounting of the king’s dinosaur at the British Museum. On May 12th, under much hoopla and fanfare, Andrew Carnegie himself was on hand to present his namesake dinosaur to the king of England and the world.

This became the first of several casts that Carnegie would donate to the heads-of-state in several European and South American capitols. The original skeleton was finally unveiled in Pittsburg in 1907 when the newly finished Dinosaur Hall was opened. After that Arthur Coggeshall spent the next five years traveling to foreign cities across three continents to mount exquisite copies of Carnegie’s pride and joy. Coggeshall and Holland were feted and celebrated in each city and bestowed with special honors and awards as they erected and presented each beautiful cast of Andrew Carnegie’s own dinosaur. As hard as it is to believe today, these replicas of italicizedDiplodocus carnegii presented millions of people their first chance ever to see a dinosaur, and in each city, hoards of the public clamored to see them.

In 1909, Carnegie paleontologist Earl Douglass discovered the extremely rich bone-bed in northeastern Utah that would eventually become Dinosaur National Monument. By then Coggeshall had added Curator of Public Education to his title, and besides supervising the preparation and mounting of the skeletons, he also documented the new dinosaur site by taking many of the historic photographs of quarry work being done there.

Soon after, Coggeshall left the Carnegie and turned his attention to science lecturing and museum administration. Now come’s the kicker to this story. In 1928, Coggeshall became the director of the St. Paul Institute of Science in St. Paul, Minnesota, the precursor to the Science Museum of Minnesota, the very entity for which I’m writing! Coggeshall served as director for just one year, but in that short time he helped redirect the institute toward becoming a more modern organization. While in Minnesota, he also gave several hour-long educational lectures in and around the state. Known as The Coggeshall Lectures, his subjects included paleontology, archaeology and other natural science topics and were often illustrated with glass slides or motion pictures. Some titles, such as “Turning Back the Clock Ten Million Years” and “Hunting Big Game in the Rocks”, were based on Coggeshall’s work in paleontology.

Arthur Coggeshall went on to serve as director to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, and then the Natural History Museum in Santa Barbara, California. He died in 1958, but his many innovations in fossil preparation and mounting large dinosaur exhibitions are still used in today’s museums. His most memorable accomplishment, the Star-Spangled Dinosaur called Dippy is still on view at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh as well as in museums on three continents. Not a bad legacy for a guy with a public school education from Bridgeport, Connecticut.

SOURCES
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story
From Trophies to Treasure
Dippy unveiled (previous Buzz story)
History of Dinosaur National Monument

Mar
18
2011
It's Friday, so it's time for a new Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science FridayCourtesy Science Friday
Today,
"Of the orchid genus catasetum, Charles Darwin wrote: "I never was more interested in any subject in all my life than in this of Orchids." The male flowers in this genus evolved an unusual pollination program. They propel a package of pollen onto the backs of visiting bees. The bees endure the blow (which would be like a 150-pound person getting hit with a few bowling balls) in exchange for orchid aromas that the bees use to attract mates.
Mar
14
2011

Buzzketeers, it's a big problem.

A ginormous, hulking, frozen, messy problem.

See, here in St. Paul, we've had a very snowy winter. (As of today, it has been the seventh snowiest winter on record. And the snow season isn't over yet.) When the City plows the streets, they have to put the snow somewhere. And one of the places they put it is the parking lot of the St. Paul Saints Midway Stadium, on Energy Park Drive.

The result?
Mt. Midway: Looking NNW from the few open parking spaces off Energy Park Drive. See those little bamboo fronds at the peak? Who needs Hawaii?
Mt. Midway: Looking NNW from the few open parking spaces off Energy Park Drive. See those little bamboo fronds at the peak? Who needs Hawaii?Courtesy Liza Pryor

The 550-spot parking lot is completely -- and I mean COMPLETELY -- covered with snow. It's 30, even 50, feet deep. And it goes from Energy Park Drive north to the train tracks, and from the stadium west to the end of the property. It's impressive, peeps.

It goes on...: and on...and on...I'm standing on the snow pile, with the peak with the tree to my left (west) looking north toward the train tracks.
It goes on...: and on...and on...I'm standing on the snow pile, with the peak with the tree to my left (west) looking north toward the train tracks.Courtesy Liza Pryor

And here's the problem, friends: the St. Paul Saints season opener is May 8th. And there's no way all this snow is going to melt before then. Baseball needs its parking lot back.

More pictures of Mt. Midway.

So how can we get rid of the snow? Trucking it away isn't an option, and minimal use of fossil fuels is a good thing. Buzzers, it's time to go all Mythbusters here and submit your ideas. If you've got a good one, you might get to see it in action.

Feb
25
2011

Archaeopteryx: Thermopolis specimen.
Archaeopteryx: Thermopolis specimen.Courtesy Mark Ryan
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the announced discovery of the first fossils of Archaeopteryx, a remarkable chimera of both bird and reptile traits. The first evidence identified was a single feather discovered at a limestone quarry in Solnhofen, Germany. This was in 1860. The German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer described the fossil in 1861, naming it Archaeopteryx lithographica. That same year, the first skeletal remains came to light, and although headless, the London specimen, as it became known, showed clearly both avian and reptilian characteristics.

The unique and iconic fossil appeared just two years after publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and helped bolster the naturalist’s theory of evolution through natural selection because its appeared to be a transitional fossil between reptile (dinosaur) and bird. Could Darwin have asked for any better evidence?

Since then nine other specimens have been found, including the Berlin specimen around 1877, which is considered one of most complete. For many years some Archaeopteryx specimens languished in collection drawers because they had been initially misidentified as another creature entirely. In 1970, Yale paleontologist John Ostrom was investigating a so-called pteradactyl fossil at a museum in the Netherlands, when he realized it had been misidentified and was actually an Archaeopteryx. The fossil had been found at Solhofen in 1855, five years prior to the feather! The museum curator was so shaken by Ostrom’s announcement, he clumsily wrapped the specimen in a paper bag and presented it to Ostrom so he could take it back to Yale for further study. Ostrom, by the way, re-ignited the “birds are dinosaurs” debate in the 1960s after his discovery of Deinonychus and his comparison of its structural features with those of birds.

The Thermopolis specimen, the latest Archaeopteryx fossil, became known around 2005 and was donated anonymously to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming. I happened to visit the museum in June of 2007 during the first week the fossil went on public display, and was able to see the spectacular specimen firsthand. The small fossil (about 1.5 feet square) was displayed behind a small, glass opening in the wall. There was no crowd to speak of so I was able to take in and photograph the fossil for a long stretch of time by myself. Looking at it, your eye is immediately drawn to the distinct feather impressions evident on both its wings and tail. The head, arms, and legs are spread out across the slab, and even though it died 150 million years ago, it looks as flat and fresh as road kill on a modern highway.

About the size of a large crow, Archaeopteryx was an odd amalgam of both bird and reptile. It had slightly asymmetrical flight feathers, wings, and a furcula (wishbone) - all traits found in birds. But its pelvis, skull and sharp teeth were reptilian (although some skull features are bird-like), and it ha a long tail like a reptile. Its bones weren’t hollow, like the bones of modern birds are, nor is its sternum (breastbone) very pronounced; it’s flatter and without a large keel where, in birds, muscles flight are attached. And it also possesses gastralia (“belly ribs”), a feature found in reptiles and dinosaurs. The inner toe (the hallux) in the Thermopolis specimen doesn’t appear to be reversed so it couldn't grasp or perch and was probably more earth-bound than arboreal. Interestingly, its second toe was extensible – meaning it could be pulled back and elevated for tearing into flesh, just like the middle toes of such dinosaurs as Troodon and Velociraptor. Truth be told, if its feathers hadn’t been preserved, Archaeopteryx would have been classified a carnivorous bipedal dinosaur. In fact, one of the existing Archaeopteryx fossil was first identified as a Compsognathus until preparation revealed its feathers.

Solnhofen and much of Europe in the Late Jurassic: A cluster of islands off the coast of the North American continent.
Solnhofen and much of Europe in the Late Jurassic: A cluster of islands off the coast of the North American continent.Courtesy Ron Blakey, NAU Geology
So what kind of environment did Archaeopteryx live in, and why are its fossils so well preserved? Well, during the Late Jurassic, southern Germany and much of the rest of Europe were pretty much a group of large islands poking out of the Tethys Sea off the coast of North America. What is today the Solnhofen quarry was then part of an island lagoon protected by a barrier reef. Geological evidence in the strata suggests the lagoon dried up several times followed by periods of re-flooding with seawater. Mixed into a brackish soup of coral debris and mud, and in a warm climate conducive to rapid evaporation, the lagoon’s bottom water levels became anoxic, that is depleted of oxygen. Low oxygen meant less bacterial activity and subsequently slow decomposition of any organism that happened to die or get swept into the stagnant lagoon. Burial in the carbonate muck was swift, leaving fresh carcasses no time to be pulled apart by currents or scavengers.

Solnhofen limestone has been used for centuries as a building stone. Because the rock’s matrix is so fine and splits so evenly (sediment deposition likely occurred in very calm waters), the material was later quarried to produce stones for lithography, a printing technique first developed in 1796, and the source of Archaeoperyx’s species designation. Many early scientific illustrations, including some of the first images ofArchaeopteryx were preserved as lithographs created using Solnhofen limestone.

Archaeopteryx commorative coin: Germany will issue the 10 Euro coin in the summer of 2011
Archaeopteryx commorative coin: Germany will issue the 10 Euro coin in the summer of 2011Courtesy Federal Republic of Germany
Solnhofen’s fossil record shows that the lagoon’s biological population was diverse. Fish, turtles, lizards and insects, crocodiles, crustaceans, ammonites, squid and starfish, mollusks, pterosaurs, and even the soft remains of jellyfish are preserved in the fine-grained limestone. But the premiere creature is of course the Archaeopteryx, which remains the earliest bird (or most bird-like dinosaur, if you will) known to date. As research on existing specimens continues and new fossils appear it's exciting to imagine what advances will take place in the dinosaur-bird connection debate. Whatever happens, Archaeopteryx lithographica will remain one of the most significant and iconic fossils ever discovered. It's no wonder that later this year on August 11th, the Federal Republic of Germany will issue a 10 Euro silver coin to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the discovery of its most famous fossil.

SOURCES and LINKS

Witmer Lab Archaeopteryx blog
UCMP Archaeopteryx page
Solnhofen limestone of the Jurassic

Dec
27
2010

I can’t believe no one has posted on this yet.

There is poll running for the weirdest science story of the year. Past winners have included: glow-in-the-dark cats and a 2,700 year-old pot stash, among others.

Nominees for this year’s poll include (I am listing only my favorites, make sure to check out the complete list and vote):

Scientists work on artificial cat brain
Fish fear their own reflections
Mammoths ate their own poo

There are lots more. It’s fun reading. Educational to boot!

Dec
11
2010

John James Audubon: portrait by John Syme, 1826
John James Audubon: portrait by John Syme, 1826Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
A rare copy of naturalist and artist John James Audubon’s epic book, Birds of America, just sold at Sotheby’s auction for more than $10 million. That’s an enormous sum considering the book is essentially a work of natural history illustration. Also known as the Double Elephant Folio because of its large size, the massive tome opens to 4 feet across and contains hundreds of plates of exquisitely drawn, life-sized paintings of birds in their natural settings. It’s considered one of the greatest collections of natural history illustrations in the world, and I have to admit, after researching the story behind this stunning collection of work, and its creator, I understand why it's so valuable.

Flamingo: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Flamingo: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
In the early 19th century, the Haitian-born Audubon (1785 - 1851) traveled across the eastern and central United States -often alone, sometimes with an assistant- to gather images of over 500 known species of bird. He would often draw them from life, but sometimes killed his avian subjects and posed them with wires in order to capture them on paper. The latter technique guaranteed the birds wouldn’t fly off. He used all sorts of media considered unconventional at the time to create his masterpiece images. Backgrounds were created sometimes by the artist himself but more often by several assistants.

Virginian Partridge: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Virginian Partridge: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Audubon developed his deep interest in birds and natural history as a child growing up in France. At age 18 he arrived in the United States (as an illegal immigrant, mind you) where he honed his passion in ornithology in the woods surrounding the family property near Philadelphia. White Gerfalcons: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
White Gerfalcons: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
During his early days in America he worked at improving his drawing techniques, and became skilled at specimen preparation and taxidermy, even working for a time in that capacity at a museum in Cincinnati. On a return trip to France he met naturalist Charles-Marie D’Orbigny who schooled him in scientific methods of research and offered tips to improve his taxidermy skills.

Canada Goose: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Canada Goose: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
The book Birds of America was a well-planned venture long before it finally came to fruition. Audubon had the title in mind when he set about in 1820 to paint every known bird in America. His goal was to eventually produce a body of work that would far surpass any other in existence. And he did exactly that. For nearly three years he roamed down the Mississippi River and across the American frontier searching out specimens to paint, sometimes purchasing them from local hunters.

Mourning doves: from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Mourning doves: from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikipedia
At the time Alexander Wilson was considered the leading ornithologist and painter of birds. He had cataloged most known birds in the country but his renderings were somewhat stiff and lifeless. Audubon worked persistently to make the birds in his drawings come to life, placing them in their natural ecosystems, often in active and dramatic poses. A single illustration would sometimes portray several species of bird.

Natural history illustration was and remains to this day crucial in disseminating scientific knowledge about the natural world. Detailed illustrations, graphics, and photographs help convey what's being explained in the text. Sometimes all the facets come together perfectly. Such is the case with Birds of America; its high regard is based on both its level of visual artistry and scientific information.

Since American printers couldn’t accommodate the oversize plates he insisted upon using, Audubon traveled to Great Britain where his paintings (and he himself) became an overnight sensation. The Brits were eager to learn anything about the new American frontier, its people and environs. The book’s original edition was printed by engraver Robert Havell (and son) starting in 1826. The process of engraving and printing all 435 plates took a dozen years and cost Audubon $111,640, a huge sum for the time. He financed the initial printing mainly through advance subscriptions, exhibitions, and lectures (a teen-aged Charles Darwin attended one of these).

Golden Eagle: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Golden Eagle: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Initially, four title pages were sent to subscribers (including King George IV, an admirer of Audubon). Prints were then issued in groups of five with the idea the buyers – if they chose to do so - would bind them together at their own cost. Each separate illustration was printed in black and white using etching and aquatint techniques on large copper plates 39 x 28 in dimension. They were then each hand-painted by an army of colorists, a technique common in the 19th Century. An accompanying volume of text titled Ornithological Biographies was later added for each of the four plate volumes. The biographies match the illustrations in their scope. Audubon (aided by ornithologist William MacGillivray) gives a detailed description of each bird’s features (including drawings of internal organs), their behaviors, and the environments in which they lived.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Ivory-billed Woodpecker: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Audubon originally published about 750 copies of Birds of America of which only 219 copies are extant today. Of those, only 119 complete copies exist, most of which are in museum and library collections. Eleven copies are in private hands and this latest intact volume is one of two to be auctioned in the last decade. Over the years, many of the original editions were broken up and sold as individual illustrations. But with so few intact editions available now their value has skyrocketed against the amount single prints would attract.

After his death, Audubon’s wife sold most of the original paintings reproduced in Birds of America to the New York Historical Society for $4000! Luckily for us, the originals are occasionally put on display there, and that would be something to see. Audubon’s final project titled Vivaraporous Quadrupeds of North America was completed posthumously by his sons.

You'd be hard pressed to name a work of as monumental as Birds of America in terms of art and science, as it's considered by many to be one of the most important natural history books in existence. And Audubon was served well by it both financially and the worldwide acclaim it brought him. He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Linnaean Society, and was only the second American to be named a fellow by London's Royal Society (Ben Franklin was the first). Charles Darwin made three mentions of Audubon’s work in his own book On the Origin of Species. The ornithological organization the National Audubon Society is named in his honor. Not a bad legacy for a backwoods kid who just loved birds.

LINKS and INFO
Complete Birds of America (with biographies) at Univ. of Pittsburgh
Book auction story
Audubon bio
The Havell Edition
Audubon Minnesota
St. Paul Audubon Society

SOME PREVIOUS BIRD STORIES ON BUZZ
Raptor Migration
Baby bird factory
Whooping cranes
Hummingbirds
Learning more about birds
Great Gray Owl

Dec
01
2010

The University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment has made some great movies examining what they call "big questions."

Big question: Feast or famine?
IonE's first Big Question asks: How do we feed a growing world without destroying the planet?

Big question: Is Earth past the tipping point?
Have we pushed our planet past the tipping point? That's a critical issue the IonE explores in our second Big Question video.

Big question: What is nature worth?
Plants, animals, even entire ecosystems are disappearing. So what? "What is Nature Worth" offers a three-minute look at what we’re REALLY losing – and what we can do about it.

Interesting problems, right? If you're intrigued, and want to know more about the folks posing the questions and trying to find the solutions, jump over to Future Earth.

Sep
03
2010

I've been thinking about cars a lot lately as I reflect on sustainable technologies and wait for the Th!nk to be sold in America. Even though cars aren't the worst offender when it comes to global warming, their impact is significant and I itch for the kinds of innovation that will reinvent the way we live again. So I hope you enjoy coming along on this little thought journey.

The Doble: A rad steam car that could have made steam the power of choice.
The Doble: A rad steam car that could have made steam the power of choice.Courtesy Norbert Schnitzler

I wasn't much interested in cars (beyond them getting me to work) until I had to research the history of automobiles for an exhibit. What got my attention was the process of innovation. In the late 1800s, there were three major technologies vying for supremacy: steam, electricity, and internal combustion.

The Detroit Electric: Seeing this ad and reading about new EVs makes me feel like I'm in a time warp.
The Detroit Electric: Seeing this ad and reading about new EVs makes me feel like I'm in a time warp.Courtesy Detroit Electric

At first, steam did best because it provided a lot of power. But steam cars took a long time to start and had to be refilled often. Ladies tended to prefer electric cars like the Detroit Electric because they were clean and silent, though they didn't go very fast, very far, or have a lot of torque. Going uphill was a pain. Early internal combustion cars were dirty and smelly, and starting one could really mess up your arm if it kicked back.

Hundreds of upstart companies created models using these three technologies with a variety of designs. Innovation was rampant. Nobody knew what a car looked like because it didn't exist before. Early cars mimicked buggies until it became clear that lowering the body on the wheels was more stable. All different kinds of designs were tried out, and companies came and went in the blink of an eye.

At first, there wasn't even a standard steering mechanism--some early cars used a tiller rather than a wheel. People could even buy engines and build their own cars at home. Over time, strong designs supported stable companies that stayed in business as others failed. It was a time of fast-paced innovation in America and other nations, and that was so exciting to think about as I researched. It sparked my imagination about our future.

The Model T: This car was available to the masses and was sold all over the world.
The Model T: This car was available to the masses and was sold all over the world.Courtesy Utah State Historical Society

I also felt a little nostalgic--steam and electric still have their advantages over internal combustion (IC). The reason IC engines became the dominant technology is that Henry Ford began mass-producing the Model T on a motorized assembly line in 1913. Although it wasn't the first mass-produced car in the US as is commonly believed (the 1901 Curved Dash Oldsmobile holds that title), the IC-driven Model T was affordable and you could buy most of the replacement parts at a hardware store.

Then in 1919, the Model T acquired one other asset--the electric starter. The starter took the danger out of starting IC engines, thereby removing one of the major setbacks of gasoline. These advantages helped cement internal combustion as the leading automotive technology, as well as establishing the success of the steering wheel.

But my nostalgia makes me wonder--what if the electric starter hadn't come around? What if Ford had made electric or steam vehicles? What if battery storage had made better progress? What would we be driving today? I think we could easily have built our transportation infrastructure to support any of those technologies.

The Citicar: I dig this little car.
The Citicar: I dig this little car.Courtesy Austinev.org

When the electric Citicar was built in the 1970s in response to the oil crisis, the company essentially started where electric cars left off in the 1920s. Part of what is taking electrics so long to catch on now is that we're having to re-invent the wheel so to speak. But I don't think that means we should lose heart. If we had spent the last 90 years working on electric vehicles, electric cars might well be running circles around internal combustion engines.

The same could be said for steam. In fact, a little known car called the Doble started nearly as quickly and easily as an IC car and could go farther before refilling, but in addition to bad management in the company, IC had already taken a strong lead by the time Dobles appeared on the market.

Far from being disappointing, my nostalgia makes me hopeful that we can return to that state of openness and innovation--that we can build on electric and other technologies to develop not just a replacement for internal combustion, but something better. When I sit with my grandchildren someday, I want to tell them the amazing story of how we avoided a crisis not by sacrifice but by being so gosh darn creative. I want to see something so cool that it makes gasoline a quaint throwback to an earlier era. And I want to see it happen for agriculture, power plants, and the economy, too.

What do you think? Is it too tall an order? Or can we invent our way to a better world? Got any ideas for how to do it?