Afield in Oklahoma

June 25, 2018

Clouds over Black Mesa.

Baby spadefoot toad, with my index finger for scale.

Someone was here before us. Even though Black Mesa is best known for its Morrison exposures and giant Jurassic dinosaurs, there are Triassic rocks here, too, which have produced both body fossils and tracks, including these.

Seen but not photographed today:

  • a group of pronghorn by the side of the road, with two babies;
  • a deer that ran across the road right in front of our vehicle;
  • a wild turkey foraging in the ditch next to the road;
  • a few jackrabbits, and more cottontails than you can shake a stick at;
  • loads of prairie dogs.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch a thunderstorm.


Exploded turtle skulls are cool, but what about exploding the entire turtle? (Not that way.) Folks at the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien roll hard. Or did – I assume these exhibits are old. Thankfully no museum studies doofus has insisted they be taken down and replaced with an interactive 3D display on what it feels like to be a sea turtle. Kudos to the current management for keeping the natural history museum filled with natural history.

I didn’t get back far enough from them to photograph all of the labels, mostly because I had like 90 minutes to jet through roughly 13,792 halls of amazing things. But this one is a loggerhead, Caretta caretta. Identifying the others is left as an exercise for the reader.

Or better yet, make your own, if you can procure a dead turtle.

Last Wednesday, May 9, Brian Engh and I bombed out to Utah for a few days of paleo adventures. Here are some highlights from our trip.

We started at a Triassic tracksite on Thursday. But I’m not going to post any pictures of the tracks – those will be coming to a Brian Engh joint near you in the future. Instead, I’m going to talk about this little male collared lizard whose territory included the tracksite. He was fearless – didn’t want to run off and leave us yahoos wandering around his patch of desert unsupervised. Brian tickled his chin at one point.

Getting this close to him is how I got shots like this one:

Click through to the big version, it’s worth it.

One more shot of a couple of cool desert dwellers. I was so fixated on the lizard that I didn’t realize until later that Brian was in the frame, taking a much-needed hydration break.

On Friday we had a temporary breaking of the fellowship. I went to Fruita, Colorado, to visit the Dinosaur Journey museum. You’ve seen photos from DJ here before, from the 2014 Mid-Mesozoic Field Conference and the 2016 Sauropocalypse. Here’s an apatosaur pubis with some obvious bite marks on the distal end. This is on display next to a similarly-bitten ischium, which is shown in the MMFC14 post linked above.

Here’s a big apatosaur cervical, in antero-ventral view, with a dorsal rib draped over its left side. The cervical ribs are not fused in this specimen, so it was probably still growing. Here’s a labeled version:

The short centrum and nearly-vertical transverse processes indicate that this is a pretty posterior cervical, possibly a C13 or thereabouts. This specimen was over the fence in the exhibit area and I couldn’t throw a scale bar at it, but I’d describe it as “honkin'”. Like most of the apatosaur material at DJ, this vert is from the Mygatt-Moore Quarry.

Of course the real reason I was at Dinosaur Journey was to see the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus that John Foster and I described back in 2014. You may remember that its caudal vertebrae have wacky neural canals. You may also have noticed a recent uptick in the number of posts around here about wacky neural canals. The game is afoot.

But as cool as they were, the Triassic tracks, the collared lizard, and even the Snowmass Haplo were only targets of opportunity. Brian and I had gone to Utah for this:

That photo was taken by Paige Wiren of Salt Lake City, on the day that she discovered that bone eroding out of a riverbank, just as you see it.

Here’s Paige with the element, which proved to be the left femur of an apatosaurine sauropod. It’s face down in these photos, so we’re looking at the medial side. The articular head is missing from the proximal end – it should be facing toward Paige’s right knee in the above photo – but other than that and a few negligible nicks and dings, the femur was complete and in really good shape.

Paige did the right thing when she found the femur: she contacted a paleontologist. Specifically, she asked a friend, who in turn put her in touch with Carrie Levitt-Bussian, the paleontology Collections Manager at the Natural History Museum of Utah. Based on Paige’s photos and maps, Carrie was able to identify the element as a dinosaur femur, probably sauropod, within the territory of the BLM Hanksville Field Office. John Foster, the Director of the Museum of Moab, has a permit to legally collect vertebrate fossils from that area, and he works on sauropods, so Carrie put Paige in touch with John and with ReBecca Hunt-Foster, the district paleontologist for the BLM’s Canyon Country District in Utah.

Now, I know there’s a lot of heated rhetoric surrounding the Bureau of Land Management, but whatever your political bent, remember this: those are our public lands. Therefore the fossils out there are the collective property of all of us, and we should all be upset if they get poached or vandalized. Yes, that is a big problem – the Brontomerus type quarry was partially poached before the bones we have now were recovered, and vandalism at public fossil sites in Utah made the national news while we were out there.

So that’s what we went to do: salvage this bone for science and education before it could be lost to erosion or asshats. Brian and I were out there to assist John, ReBecca, and Paige, who got to see her find come out of the ground and even got her hands dirty making the plaster jacket. Brian and John headed out to the site Friday morning and met up with Paige there, and ReBecca and I caravanned out later in the day, after I got back from Fruita.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. We didn’t have to jacket the whole thing. It had naturally broken into three pieces, with thin clay infills at the breaks. So we just slid the proximal and middle thirds away as we uncovered them, and hit any loose-looking pieces with consolidant. The distal third was in more questionable shape, so we did make a partial jacket to hold it together.

We also got to camp out in gorgeous country, with spectacular (and welcome) clouds during the day and incredible starry skies at night.

We floated the femur out of the site using the Fosters’ canoe at the end of the day on Saturday, and loaded up to head back to Moab on Sunday. At one point the road was empty and the sky was not, so I stood on the center line and took some photos. This one is looking ahead, toward I-70 and Green River.

And this one is looking behind, back toward Hanksville.

Here are John and Brian with the femur chunks in one of the back rooms of the Museum of Moab. The femur looks oddly small here, but assembled it was 155 cm (5’1″) long and would have been 160 (5’3″) or more with the proximal head. Smaller than CM 3018 and most of the big mounted apatosaurs, but nothing to sneeze at.

What happens to it next? It will be cleaned, prepped, and reassembled by the volunteers and exhibit staff at the Museum of Moab, and eventually it will go on public display. Thousands of people will get to see and learn from this specimen because Paige Wiren made the right call. Go thou and do likewise.

That was the end of the road for the femur (for now), but not for Brian and me. We had business in Cedar City and St. George, so we hit the road Sunday afternoon. Waves of rainclouds were rolling east across Utah while we were rolling west, with breaks for sunlight in between. I miiiight have had to swerve a couple of times when all the scenery distracted me from driving, and I definitely made an obnoxious number of stops to take pictures.

I don’t remember which scenic overlook this was, but it was a pretty darned good view. This is another one that will reward embiggening – check out those mesas marching off into the distance.

In Cedar City we were guests of Andrew R.C. Milner, Site Paleontologist and Curator at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm (SGDS). We spent most of Monday at SGDS, getting our minds comprehensively blown by the amazing trace and body fossils on display. It was my first time visiting that museum, but it sure as heck won’t be the last.

I didn’t take nearly enough photos in St. George – too busy helping Brian do some filming for a future project – but I did get this gem. This is a Eubrontes track, from a Dilophosaurus-sized theropod. This is a positive track, a cast of the dinosaur’s foot made by sandy sediment that filled the natural mold formed when the dino stepped into mud. The high clay content of the mud recorded the morphology of the foot in fine detail, including the bumps of individual scales on the foot pads. The vertical streaks were cut into the side of the track by similar scales as the animal’s foot pushed into the mud.

The full story of the Johnson Farm tracks and trackmakers is beautifully told in the book Tracks in Deep Time: The St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, by Jerry Harris and Andrew Milner. I hadn’t read it before, so I picked up a copy in the gift shop and I’ve been devouring it. As a professional scientist, educator, and book author myself, I’m jealous of what Jerry and Andrew produced – both the text and the abundant full-color illustrations are wonderfully clear, and the book is well-produced and very affordable.

From St. George we hit the road home, and rolled into Claremont just before midnight on Monday. It was a whirlwind tour – 1800 miles, three museums, and two fossil sites in six days – and my brain is still fizzing with all of the things we got to see and do.

One of the many pros of having a professional artist as a friend is that minimal hospitality, like letting him crash on my couch, is sometimes rewarded with original art. Brian was already gone when I got up Tuesday morning, but this was waiting for me on the dining room table. (Want your own? Help Brian make more monsters here.)

I owe plenty of thanks myself: to the Foster and Milner families for their near-maximal hospitality, to Julia McHugh of Dinosaur Journey for assistance in collections, to Diana Azevedo, Jalessa Spor, Jerry Harris, and the rest of the SGDS staff for being such gracious hosts, to Brian for being such a great friend and traveling companion, and most of all to Paige Wiren for finding the apato femur and helping us save it for science. You’re all top-notch human beings and I hope our paths cross again soon.

Saw this gem back in the herpetology collections at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and thought, “Someone up and Beauchened a turtle head.” (My inner monologue is a tennis match between an arch language pedant and an unreconstructed hick with a penchant for folksy archaisms.)

What a sweet mount – there should be one of these for every critter in the museum. There should be a Hall of Exploded Skulls, and a Curator of Exploded Skulls. Would that be too much, or not enough? Both hypotheses remain untested. Someone should fix that.

Many, many thanks to Ted Daeschler for showing me all the awesome stuff at the Academy of Natural Sciences – or, if not all, as much as we could cram into two hours.

In her best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo argues that you should get rid of everything in  your life that doesn’t “spark joy”. I have accepted that I will never achieve Kondo-level simplicity, because too many things spark joy: a brass dinosaur my grandmother gave me when I was a kid, a worn penguin tibia I picked up on a beach in Uruguay, an Oklahoma rose rock, the alligator head Vicki brought me from New Orleans, an armadillo skull I found in the woods once, a sliced geode, an ammonite…the list goes on. Every area I have control over becomes, if not a cabinet of curiosities, at least a semi-organized array of curiosities.

An old box of stuff I unwrapped over the holidays. The human skull and allosaur claw are casts, all the other natural history items are real.

There are a couple of objects in my collection that give me more pleasure than any of the rest. One is a piece of shrapnel from the Sikhote-Alin meteorite – more about that another time, perhaps. The other is a 1.5″ tungsten cube.

I got the tungsten cube because of an answer on Quora to the question, “What is the most beautifully satisfying physics-based desk toy?” As the anonymous author of this particular answer wrote:

Some philistines may not consider this a proper “toy”, but I’ve had one for a year or so and am still crazy about it and have zero regret about purchasing it despite its high cost. It doesn’t do anything other than be way heavier than it seems possible for something that size to be. I think it’s mind-boggling and entertaining just to pick it up, hold it, savor its surreally strong attraction to the center of the earth, and think about gravity, matter, fundamental forces, etc.

The next time I got a nice chunk of fun money, I got the pair of 1.5″ tungsten and aluminum cubes sold by Midwest Tungsten Service. And a couple of years on, I gotta say, that purchase has probably given the best return of enjoyment per dollar of anything I’ve ever bought. For two reasons.

First, there’s the tactile enjoyment of picking up the tungsten cube. It is shockingly heavy. Pure tungsten has a specific gravity of 19.25. This cube is an alloy of 95% tungsten, 3.5% nickel, and 1.5% iron, called MT-18F by Midwest Tungsten. According to the fact sheet provided with the cube, “The addition of these alloying elements improves both the ductility and machinability of these alloys over non-alloyed tungsten, which can be brittle.” The addition of those other elements brings the cube’s density down to 18 g/cm^3. By comparison, steel is 8.05 and lead is 11.35. So even the alloyed cube still has a density more than half again that of lead. The 1.5″ cube has a mass of almost exactly 1 kg.

Even knowing, intellectually, how heavy the tungsten cube is, it’s still a kick in the brainpan every time I pick it up. It feels unreasonably, unnaturally heavy. It’s uncanny, like something out of a comic book, like it’s being pulled downward with the same force I normally associate with strong magnets.

The second reason why the cube is so great is the thoughts that it inspires. Pure tungsten has a melting point of 3422 °C (6192 °F). The W-Ni-Fe alloy, like other tungsten heavy alloys, “will begin to form a liquid phase when heated in excess of ~1450 °C (2642 °F)”, according to the Tungsten Heavy Alloy Design Manual (link). According to this page, most room fires max out at about 1200 °C, and according to this page, the temperatures of most magmas are 700-1300 °C (~1300-2400 °F). It is also extremely hard, with a Vickers hardness of 262 kgf/mm² (about 8.5 Mohs; regular steel is 4-4.5 and hardened steel is 7.5-8). The only harder substances are things like corundum; carbides of silicon, titanium, and tungsten; boron; and diamond.

So, seriously, what is going to destroy this cube? Burn down the house, and it will survive. Toss it into lava or magma, and it will sink to the bottom – even into the upper mantle – and sit comfortably, 150 °C or more below its melting point. If I owned beachfront property it would be cool to put the cube on a pebbly part of the beach and leave it there for a few years and see how – or if – it would erode. I know it can shatter if hit hard enough, but I imagine if it was just rolling around in the surf with some pebbles, the tungsten cube would wear down the pebbles and not vice versa. (It occurs to me that this could be tested with a small cube and a rock tumbler – I’ll let you know if I ever perform that experiment.)

My youngest brother, Ryan, designs drill bits for the oil industry, and then goes out to the drill sites to see how they wear down. His job is basically getting industrial diamond, tungsten carbide, and hardened steel to play well together at 1100 rpm. I wrote to get his profession opinion on the survivability of the tungsten cube.


I’m having a hard time thinking of some natural or accidental process that would destroy it. Volcano, asteroid, and A-bomb are all I’ve come up with. [This was before I’d looked up the temperature of magma.] Like, if it just got left out in the rain and the sun forever, would it corrode? Ever? How long could it be sitting there as a recognizable cube – a century, a millennium, 100,000 years?

Ryan (in an email with permission to cite):

I don’t have much experience with straight tungsten but WC [tungsten carbide] should fare better corrosion wise, it takes some pretty exotic stuff to corrode it. Now cobalt has a melting point of 2700F so if the WC got that hot the cobalt binder would melt, desintering the WC and breaking it down. However that’s way hotter than your average house fire.

Barring any natural disasters, acts of God, or man-made intervention, I would think you could set that thing on the ground somewhere and it would be just fine for a long, long time.

Fun fact #1: Pure tungsten oxidizes in air, so I imagine that’s one of the reasons they added the nickel in the MT-18F.

Fun fact #2: Ni and Co have very similar melting points. [Meaning that my W-Ni-Fe cube will desinter at about the same temp as tungsten carbide, which uses cobalt instead of nickel as the binder.]

My desk at work. Aquilops and sea otter skulls on the left are casts, the ichthyosaur is a 3D print, and everything else is real and mostly collected and prepped by me. That’s the aluminum cube in the back on the far left. The tungsten cube sits on my side of the desk, where I can play with it.

Now, I have a lot of things that I hope will outlive me, including a lot of old books and reprints. And a lot of that stuff is pretty durable, including the aforementioned meteorite chunk. But there is a big difference between holding a century-old monograph and hoping that the people who come after me will care for it, and holding the tungsten cube and knowing that it will most certainly survive for centuries or millennia, unless someone attempts to destroy it, deliberately and with a non-trivial expenditure of effort.

And that’s why I’m writing about the tungsten cube here on what is normally my fossil blog. I am surrounded by objects that represent time – developmental time for bones, geologic time for fossils and minerals, astronomical time for meteorites – but these are almost all natural products that embody the past. The tungsten cube is a human product, and in its sheer durability – and survivability – it embodies the future. It will exist in future iterations of this world that I can’t imagine. That’s a breathtaking thought.

If you’re thinking about getting a chunk of tungsten, I strongly recommend the 1.5″ cube set. A few months after picking it up, I got a 0.5″ cube of the same stuff, just to see what it would be like. It’s heavy for its size, but it’s not heavy enough to be shocking. The visceral reaction is more “huh” than “WOW!!”

It’s worth getting the set because the aluminum cube is also entertaining and it’s worth the small additional outlay (as of this writing, $133 for the 1.5″ tungsten cube alone, and $159 for the pair). The aluminum cube has a mass of 0.15 kg, exactly 15% that of the tungsten cube. I have visitors pick up the aluminum cube first. It’s funny, I guess a lot of folks haven’t had a chance to play with solid chunks of metal firsthand because they’ll pick up the aluminum cube and say, “Wow, that’s heavier than I expected.” At that point I just smile. The tungsten cube blows people away, every time. Heck, it blows me away every time, and I’ve been playing with it for two years. Highly recommended.

For a full line of cubes, spheres, and tops, check out Midwest Tungsten Service (link). Many of their products are also available on Amazon.

I have used this photo in loads of talks, but as far as I can tell, this is the first time I’ve put it up on SV-POW! (I am certain that, having said that, someone will find a previous instance – if so, consider this an extremely inefficient and lazy form of search.) The vert is OMNH 1670, the most complete and nicest dorsal of the giant Oklahoma apatosaurine, probably a D5 or D6. That’s me back in 2004. Photo by my then fellow grad student in the Padian lab, Andrew Lee. I’m 6’2″ and have normally-proportioned human arms, but if you’re trying to figure out the scale, that vert is 135cm tall, with an anterior centrum face 38cm tall by 46cm wide (partly reconstructed but probably accurate). See this post for more details and a fairly exhaustive list of measurements.

Here’s a stupid thing: roughly 2-3 times a year I go to the field or to a museum and get hundreds of SV-POW!-able photos. Then I get back to the world and catch up on all of the work that piled up while I was away. And by the time I’m done with that, whatever motivating spark I had – to get some of those photos posted and talk about the exciting things I figured out – has dissipated.

Case in point – this bitchin’ shark, prepped in ventral view, which I saw last month in the natural history museum in Vienna. Look at that fat, muscular tail – this shark is swole.

That’s dumb. And this blog is in danger of slipping into senescence, and irrelevance.

So here’s my New Year blog resolution for 2018: I’m getting us back to our roots. I, or we – I am taking this plunge without consulting with Mike (surprise, buddy!) – will post a new, never-posted-before photo, at least once a week, for the whole year. It may not always be a sauropod vertebra, but if often will be, because that’s what I have the most of, and the most to yap about. And I will try to write something interesting about each photo, without lapsing into the logorrhea that has too often made this blog too exhausting to contemplate (at least from this side of the keyboard).

Wish me luck!

This was an interesting exercise. It was my first time generating a poster to be delivered at a conference since 2006. Scientific communication has evolved a lot in the intervening decade, which spans a full half of my research career to date. So I had a chance to take the principles that I say that I admire and try to put them into practice.

It helped that I wasn’t working alone. Jann and Brian both provided strong, simple images to help tell the story, and Mike and I were batting ideas back and forth, deciding on what we could safely leave out of our posters. Abstracts were the first to go, literature cited and acknowledgments were next. We both had the ambition of cutting the text down to just figure captions. Mike nailed that goal, but my poster ended up being slightly more narrative. I’m cool with that – it’s hardly text-heavy, especially compared with most of my efforts from back when. Check out the text-zilla I presented at SVP back in 2006, which is available on FigShare here. I am happier to see, looking back, that I’d done an almost purely image-and-caption poster, with no abstract and no lit cited, as early as 1999, with Kent Sanders as coauthor and primary art-generator – that one is also on FigShare.

I took 8.5×11 color printouts of both my poster and Mike’s, and we ended up passing out most of them to people as we had conversations about our work. That turned out to be extremely useful – I had a 30-minute conversation about my poster at a coffee break the day before the posters even went up, precisely because I had a copy of it to hand to someone else. Like Mike, I found that presenting a poster resulted in more and better conversations than giving a talk. And it was the most personally relaxing SVPCA I’ve ever been to, because I wasn’t staying up late every night finishing or practicing my talk.

I have a lot of stuff to say about the conference, the field trip, the citability of abstracts and posters (TL;DR: I’m for it), and so on, but unfortunately no time right now. I’m just popping in to get this posted while it’s still fresh. Like Mike’s poster, this one is now published alongside my team’s abstract on PeerJ PrePrints.

I will hopefully have much more to say about the content in the future. This is a project that Jann, Brian, and I first dreamed up over a decade ago, when we were grad students at Berkeley. Mike provided the impetus for us to get it moving again, and kindly stepped aside when I basically hijacked his related but somewhat different take on ontogeny and serial homology. When my fall teaching is over, I’m hoping that the four of us can take all of this, along with additional examples found by Mike that didn’t make it into this presentation, and shape it into a manuscript. I’ll keep you posted on that. In the meantime, the comment field is open. For some related, previously-published posts, see this one for the baby sauropod verts, this one for CM 555, and this one for Plateosaurus.

Flying over Baffin Island on the way home.

And finally, since I didn’t put them into the poster itself, below are the full bibliographic references. Although we didn’t mention it in the poster, the shell apex theory for inferring the larval habits of snails was first articulated by G. Thorson in 1950, which is referenced in full here.

Literature Cited