After three months as a paleontology grad student, this morning Vanessa I. Graff got to sink a shovel in the service of science. Now, it was a bear skull, deliberately buried in someone’s back yard, so technically today’s exploits fall under the heading of contemporary zooarcheology rather than paleontology, but we’ll take what we can get.

This story has a backstory. The guy on the right here is Hossein Aziz, one of my advisees among the DO students at Western. His landlady’s ex-husband is in law enforcement, and about a year and a half ago he had to shoot a bear that had become a threat to humans. He buried the head in the backyard and separated from his then wife. She found out from Hossein that one of his professors was a paleontologist and offered to donate the skull to science, if only we’d come dig it up. So we did. Involved in the excavation (right to left in the above photo) were Hossein, his girlfriend Lia, my son London, Vanessa, and yours truly.

Additional note: Hossein’s landlady is a British expatriate, and she served us proper English tea. It was the most civilized dig I have been on, which, admittedly, is sort of like being the least worthless Kardashian. Anyway, the tea was great, and we all had a good time.

My wife, Dr. Vicki Wedel, was out of  town, but she lent us her archaeological toolkit, so we had nice trowels and kneepads and such. Here Hossein is pretending to advise Vanessa and London on what they should be doing, which is funny because that’s usually my job (pretending, that is).

After about half an hour of digging, we found intact vertebrate remains! And there was much rejoicing.

First out of the ground was the mandible, which is in essentially perfect shape.

Ursus americanus mandible and lower dentition, Homo goofballensis for comparison and scale.

Lia and London clearing dirt from around the cranium, which looks disturbingly hominoid from this angle.

There really aren’t any words for what’s going on here. Just bask a moment in the glory and move on.

We were going for American Gothic here, but Vanessa blew it by smiling. Standard.

Lia and Hossein marveling at what is, after all, a pretty badass critter. Even a small bear has seriously impressive teeth, which you hope to never find embedded in your flesh.

Still, it can be fun to pretend otherwise.

Here’s what we have. The occipital region is just gone. The left temporal region is more intact and has a long crack leading away across the frontals. On the right, everything from the zygomatic process of the maxilla to the occiput is just gone. So I reckon the rifle bullet went in on the left and blew out an exit wound the size of an orange on the right side of the bear’s head.

After a good rinse in the tub, all the bits are now soaking in soapy water. I’ll post more pictures when I get it all cleaned up and  presentable. In the meantime, many thanks to Hossein’s landlady for the skull, the tea, and her amused tolerance at having a bunch of dirty people digging in her yard, and to Hossein, Lia, Vanessa, and London for their work. It was a pretty darned good way to start the weekend.

Update: cleaning and re-arming the bear skull.

Denver Diplodocus

November 5, 2011

Taken by me–or rather, my camera in automatic mode–earlier today, because the ole sauropod blog has been a bit light on sauropods lately.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Sauroposeidon, Supersaurus, and the like. It’s good to be reminded that even an ‘average’ sauropod like Diplodocus is still pretty awesome. And weird. I don’t know if we can be reminded often enough.