Sunday, September 30, 2007

Where's the Beef?

With all the posts about dinosaurs lately I thought this would be timely.

I recently happened upon one of the major creationist websites and read some of their mind-boggling "science." Creationists rail against evolution and complain that the fossil record is incomplete. They claim there are no transitional forms. They don't claim the transitional forms were not fossilized mind you, they claim they did not exist. The reason they claim they did not exist is that they do not appear in the fossil record and if they had existed they would have appeared.

Real scientists point out that the fossil record is incomplete because the creation of fossils is a sporadic event occurring over a long time period that requires specific conditions. Even given that, there are very few paleontologists and a LOT of ground to cover. Only a tiny fraction of the dinosaurs that are fossilized have been dug up and identified.

Creationists ignore this fact and prefer to believe that the fossil record was created by the great flood. Only animals that existed at the time of the flood could have been killed and buried and fossilized. Since we don't find transitional forms, they didn't exist.

Ahem, herein lies the rub for creationists. There are two huge logical problems with their argument.

First off, if the flood was the singular event that formed fossils and the flood only lasted one year then DUH there aren't any transitional forms because evolution doesn't happen in one year. You can't simultaneously say all the fossils were formed in one year and then claim evolution is false because the "snapshot" of animal life the flood fossilized in one year doesn't' show transitional forms. You can either have fossils being formed over millions of years and then you get to complain about missing transitional forms or you get fossils formed in one year by the great flood but then you can't complain about missing transitional forms. You can't logically have it both ways.

Choose one.

Secondly, Noah took two of each animal onto the ark right? Let's look at a fairly common animal. Deer. If he took two deer onto the ark that leaves, oh, let's say a few billion deer that didn't make it onto the ship. They died in the flood. So did all of the bears, goats, horses, chickens, wolves, kangaroos, squirrels, moose, cows, pigs, etc. that were not the lucky two chosen. The idea creationists but forward is that there are no dinosaurs now because they died in the flood. That is why we find them fossilized.

Hold on here a second.

Dear creationists, if Noah only took two of each animal onto the ark then there were millions of individuals from each species that DID NOT make it onto the ark and would have died in the flood. There are lots of dinosaurs that creationists and young earth believers think died in the flood. Please show me a fossil of a deer, a bear, a goat, a horse, a chicken, a wolf, a kangaroo, a moose, a cow or a pig.

Better yet show me hundreds of millions of them because hundreds of millions would not have made it onto the ark and they would have died right alongside the dinosaurs. They don't show up in the fossil record and you claim that animals that don't show up in the fossil record don't exist. That's weird because I could swear I've seen cows, bears, goats, horses, etc. yet they aren't in the fossil record with the dinosaurs.

You can't have it both ways.

Come to think of it where are the fossils of the millions of people who died in the flood? Why don't we find axes and houses and ox-carts and humans and dogs and sandals and cooking utensils mixed in with dinosaur fossils?

Bah! It isn't worth wasting more time on it. We don't find these things because the world wasn't formed the way some guys with no scientific understanding sitting in a tent thousands of years ago dreamed it was created. If you are a creationist and you read this please explain why when a transitional form can't be found it means the scientists are wrong but it is all hunky dory when creationists can't find a single fossil cow, pig, etc. when there should be millions.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Saprophyte No More . . .

My knowledge is obsolete

The last week of summer camp I discovered some unusual plants in the forest with my campers. I immediately recognized them as saprophites.

Sapro: meaning obtaining nutrients from non-living matter and phyte: meaning plant.

Here's the problem. My knowledge is obsolete. I wanted to identify the exact species and apparently saprophyte is a term no longer used. It was explained to me years ago that a saprophyte is a plant that lacks chlorophyll and thus obtains nutrients from decomposing organic matter. The problem is that now scientists say no plant can do that. What is actually happening is that the plant is engaging in parasitic behavior. It parasitizes a fungi to steal nutrients and it is the fungi that are taking the nutrients from the decaying matter. You may think it is a technicality, the plant is stealing nutrients from fungi rather than taking them from decaying matter, however now scientists say the term saprophyte is technically incorrect and misleading.

They now refer to a plant such as this as a Myco-heterotroph. Great, the kids will really remember that. It isn't a saprophyte kids, it is a myco-heterotroph. I had a hard enough time teaching the word saprophyte to third graders. In reality, they will probably remember the name Ghost Plant, Corpse Plant or Indian Pipe better. I think that's what this is. I've seen it here before but this clump looks different. I think what you see in the photo is an already pollinated flower. The petals have fallen off and it is now standing up straight as opposed to nodding.

Either way, fairly elusive and very cool.


Monday, September 24, 2007

Dinosaur Dig (part 4)

Ah, Thursday and Friday. We're almost at the end of our journey. I'm not posting anything about Friday as it was just our drive home.

After our rain day Wednesday we were itching to get back out in the field on Thursday.

We had a fantastic day. I drank over four liters of water in the field and I was still thirsty. I can see how if you were to run out of water out there it could be bad very quickly. It wasn't even that hot. The week before we arrived they were having temperatures in the 100s.

The arrow on the left shows the view of our van from where we ate lunch Thursday. That white splotch is an 18 foot long 15 passenger van.

Here's the same photo uncropped for comparison. We hiked though this basin and stopped atop this butte for lunch. The spot we're sitting in is relatively flat as they removed a triceratops from this site a few years ago. There were some bone scraps left behind and little pieces of plaster from making a field jacket for the beast. Can you imagine carrying the dinosaur back to where the van is in this photo?

I sometimes read complaints that the fossil record in incomplete. This sometimes comes from those who oppose the theory of evolution. They argue that there has been plenty of time for scientists to find all the fossils they need and transitional forms have not been found.

Have these people ever gone on a dig? The dinosaurs are embedded in hard rock. First you have to find one, then you have to have the time and resources to spend a year or more getting it out of the ground. This often involves taking off layers of stone many feet thick, one exacto blade scrape at a time. Imagine scraping away a whole hillside of hard rock with a dull exacto blade in blazing heat and humidity. Once you finally uncover the dinosaur you have to make a plaster field jacket and then transport it back to a lab (which in some cases means building new roads just to reach the site) It doesn't end there, you have to spend possibly years cleaning and assembling it. Once you see the vastness on an area like this and then realize there are essentially two or three people with a shoestring budget trying to find the treasures that have been battered by erosion and covered over for 65 million years and you begin to see how it may take some time to fill in our gaps in understanding. This is still a very young science and there are many millions of critters still waiting to be dug up.

Thursday was all about microsites. That means we spent a good part of the day sitting on the ground moving painstakingly forward looking for teeth and small limb bones. At the third site of the day I found two dromeosaur teeth but stupidly didn't take a picture. This particular site was still of scientific interest so we couldn't keep anything. It was similar to the teeth pictured here.

In the photo to the left we're heading home for dinner on Thursday. You can click on it (or any photo on the blog) to view a bigger image. The barbed wire fence on the left hand side of the picture marks the border with Montana. I could have spent many more hours in the field I was having so much fun. I inhaled a huge dinner of nachos and encheladas after the hour and thirty minute van trip back to Marmarth. I was very excited to not have hot dish.

I had a great time on the trip and I can't wait to return. I'll have to though. With a baby due soon I won't be able to sneak away for a week to look for dinosaurs next summer. We need to line up some funding as well. In the mean time I'll have to content myself hunting down an relatively complete ordavercian period cephalopod along the banks of the Mississippi or perhaps a complete crinoid. That should keep me busy. Chelsey will be less than thrilled if I do manage to find and bring home a six foot long cephalopod fossil. "Where do you intend to keep that?!"

Well, that's all for now. I'm sure the trip will generate a few more posts.


Friday, September 21, 2007

130 Birdies!

I finally made it to 130 birds. What a milestone. While visiting Chelsey's parents in La Crosse I spotted several tufted titmice (bird 128) in the trees by their home. I figured I would see some there at some point. Every time she calls them in the summer I can hear PETER! PETER! in the background. It was inevitable I would spot one there. There were also female ruby throated hummingbirds kicking through.

On September 10th I attended the Metro Naturalist Training at the Coon Rapids Dam. There were lots of great blue herons and a couple of great egrets. For the record, there were also Canada geese, mallards and a cardinal. The new bird for the list there was a ring billed gull (bird 129). This is sort of a gimme I save for this time of year when the pickins are lean. I probably saw one earlier but I purposefully willed myself not to id birds in the cub foods parking lot.

At Warner Nature Center, where I work, we have weekly trail assignments to force us naturalists to get outside. It seems silly to have to force naturalists outside but you get busy and then feel guilty about going on a hike (which is just as important to our training as anything else.) We need to know what goes on out there if we're going to teach about it.

On my hike today I hiked the new Esker Trail. I spotted bluebirds and goldfinches in the prairie. Once I veered into the woods and hiked along the lake I spotted wood ducks and a flock of white throated sparrows. All in all by the end of my hike I counted over 50 wood ducks. I also saw a green heron and a small group of Myrtle (yellow rumped) warblers. Bird 130 came as a real surprise. A bird landed on a branch right in front of me and I peered through my binoculars. I instantly recognized it. It was an ovenbird. That's bird species 130 for the year. I heard overbirds all summer but was never able to see one. Now that they have stopped calling here one plops down in front of me. Figures. What will be next? I see shorebirds and water fowl in my future as I head to a conference in Wisconsin next month.

128 Tufted Titmouse in La Crosse (Holmen)
129 Ring-billed gull-at metro training
130 Ovenbird

Monday, September 17, 2007

Flying Sharks and Ray Surfing

So my friend Andrea just got back from Japan and while she was there she took a photo of a completely bizarre sign. I cleaned up the image a bit to what you see above. Whatever it means it would make a great T-Shirt. Can anyone read Japanese?


Sunday, September 16, 2007

DInosaur Dig (part 3)

Tuesday night we heard a rumble in the air. No, it wasn't one of the two nightly coal trains that sped through town about 50 feet from my window, it was a storm. This is perhaps a good point to put in a picture of the "roads" we traveled on to get to the sites. These are not roads, they are two-track ranch trails through the Little Missouri National Grasslands. Rain is not a good thing for two tracks as it makes them impassable mud pits.

Even at their best, these two tracks are a crazy ride. The kids said it was more fun than Valleyfair. It was a lot of fun to drive and it felt a lot wilder than it really was. We paused to take this photo on what was a pretty typical slope. From inside the van it felt like this was an extreme 45 degree angle when in reality it was only about 18 degrees. Still, that's not normal.

It doesn't look that bad you say? Okay, okay, you'll have to check out the video. The first rule of two tracks is that each track does not need to be at the same height. This was not for people who get carsick!

Wednesday morning we headed into Montana to the little town of Ekalaka where locals drove by again and again to look at the strangers. I'm glad we could entertain them. Ekalaka is home to the Carter County Museum which has a nice small fossil collection including a large hadrosaur, a copy of the skull of Peck's Rex, and a triceratops skull. There were other nice small paleo items as well.

Being the county museum it also featured historical items. My brother would have appreciated the two headed calf. Now that's history we can all ogle at and appreciate. Here's a picture for you Erik.

We ate lunch at the historic and sacred native site the Medicine Rocks which locals have taken care of for the tribes by carving their names, two feet high, into the soft sacred stone. Way to go Montana. It was pretty disgusting not to mention horribly insulting. It would be a little like carving "Class of 95 RULZ!!!" into the crucified Jesus's chest over the altar in a catholic church. God bless America!

We finished up Wednesday by making some plastic replicas of dinosaur teeth and claws. We were supposed to get in some time in the lab but someone (who will remain nameless) decided even though we paid for the experience they should close up the lab early for the season. In the photo, I am showing kids how to add a little natural grit to their replica t-rex tooth to give it that fresh-out-of-the-ground look. Hopefully they aren't selling theirs on ebay as the real deal. Thanks to Doug for letting us work out of his garage as a temporary lab!

That's all for Wednesday!


Thursday, September 13, 2007

What's Erik Mona doin?

Friends sometimes ask, "What's your brother up to?"

Wonder no more


Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Ah the woodchuck. (also known as the groundhog, whistle pig and woodland marmot)

I did this drawing a while back. It is just a little sketch and the photo of it isn't the best. I thought I would share it anyhow. Enjoy.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dinosaur Dig (part 2)

Here's post number 2 about my dinosaur hunting trip. I present, Tuesday.

Tuesday we headed out to the Triceratops site. This was very neat to see, though a bit confusing as the skeleton was not complete. I know what a sacrum and ilium are but I'm guessing the kids didn't. I would include a photo but unless you know what you are looking at it just looks like a shot of the ground.

The previous day, a group had made a plaster field jacket for the triceratops femur so we helped haul that out. It was very heavy. That's me on the back right getting ready to lower it down a small hill. I think the dark blotch on the horizon might be the truck we're carrying it to. The field jacket consists of a 2x4 for support, some foil and a lot of plaster strips.

While waiting to carry out the femur I did a little prospecting and located a rich trail of bone fragments coming down the hillside maybe 100 feet from the triceratops. I called the rest of the group over and we followed the pieces up to the top of the hill where they stopped. We dug a little but didn't find anything. The two experts with us looked at some of the pieces we found and could tell that they were triceratops frill. It was really cool to follow the trail and start looking for more even though we didn't turn up anything. They hadn't found the head of the triceratops they were excavating 100 feet away so perhaps it disassociated when it died and we were finding pieces of the head of the one they were digging up. Who knows.

Here I am doing a little cleaning up on a different piece of frill. You can see the lines from where the blood vessels were. If you think that triceratops were cold blooded then you think the blood vessels were there to help heat up the dinosaurs via passive solar collection. If you think they were warm blooded then the blood vessels may have helped it cool down. I'll leave that debate to the experts.

FYI: The stylish latex gloves are actually to keep paint and chemicals off my hands as we were making plastic casts of dinosaur pieces on the table in the background.

Later that day we climbed to the top of a butte and felt one of the strongest winds I've ever felt in my life. I took this clip of video but it doesn't do the force of the wind justice. You can get a good view of the basin we are about to descend into as I pan across the landscape. This is my first ever video in a blog post. I'll have better ones in the future!

Atop this bluff we collected some of the K-T boundary. This is the geologic boundary between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. This layer of ash comes from the meteorite impact that slammed into the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago and almost ended all life on earth. The actual K-T boundary here is very visible, one of the best spots on earth to see it. You can even see yellow ribbons of iridium in the black. Iridium in this concentration generally only comes from meteors.

For reference, check out this satellite photo.

View Larger Map
The marker marks the exact spot we collected the KT boundary. Can you see why they call this the Hell Creek formation? It isn't a real hospitable location. The basin to the south of the butte is where we spent the day hiking and looking for fossils.

We headed down into the basin and scouted out several cool sites. We found many pieces of turtle shell. Most pieces were about the size of a quarter.

The pieces I found are from trionychid turtles such as this one. The complete one in the photo is a replica in the Warner Nature Center collection. For size reference, that is a standard countertop it is sitting on and the fossil takes up the entire depth of the counter. These large turtles are related to the soft shelled turtles that inhabit rivers today. The basic turtle design is evolutionarily very robust and has changed little over time.

At one particularly interesting site after lunch I picked up some broken pieces of fossil that had washed into a small wash coming off a hillside. Since the pieces were found close together (within a five foot stretch) and all appeared similar I put them into their own bag and asked our leader about them. He said they were from a turtle and that I could keep them as they were just broken scrap type pieces. I took them home and to my delight two of the pieces fit together. As I played with them a second piece fell into place and then a third, then a fourth. All in all there were 18 pieces and 9 of them fit together. That's pretty impressive.

What I can tell is that it is a portion of the anterior right plastron of a turtle. I have one piece of carapace as well. You can see the curved up portion where the plastron would have connected to the carapace of the turtle. It seems about twice as thick as the trionychid shell pieces we found so I need to do some digging to get and idea of what species I'm dealing with. My impression is that trionychid turtles did not have such solid plastrons. I'll post pictures at some point.

I had a great time putting all the pieces together. I just wish I had a whole turtle to work with! It was a like a fantastic challenging jigsaw puzzle but in the end, instead of a photo of a basket full of puppies or kittens, you end up with a fossil of an animal that lived 65 million years ago. Pretty damn cool.

We continued on our hike through the basin learning about geology and fossils until our water ran out and we needed to head back. We spotted a badly crumbled hadrosaur femur on the ground and noted it with GPS before turning for home. Maybe another group can look longer at this area next season.

That's all for Tuesday. More to come later!


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Laser Magician

I used to be a magician so I enjoy seeing how the art progresses. This one was new to me. I like lasers too so what's not to like. I get how he does this, it isn't anything too overly complex as but he does it so well! Enjoy the video.