Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Natural Wonders, Old and New

It was a week of amazing spectacles, all courtesy of Mother Nature.

I returned home to California a couple of days ago after a brief, but eventful stint hunting dinosaurs (the extinct kind) in the wilds of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. As I write, some of the crew is still out there in those southern Utah badlands, but I thought I’d offer Whirlpool of Life readers a few highlights from our spring expedition.

Ring of Fire: Annular Eclipse, 2012
The week began in spectacular fashion, with no less than an eclipse of our nearby stellar neighbor. After flying from San Francisco to Las Vegas, I drove my rental 4X4 about four and half hours to the north-central part of Grand Staircase near the small town of Cannonville. Passing through Bryce Canyon, I saw dozens of people setting up telescopes and cameras by the side of the road. No time to waste.

After fixing a surprise flat tire, I made my way out to the meeting spot—a beautiful double sandstone arch known as Grosvenor Arch. There I met with rocket engineer and paleontology volunteer Phil Policelli, with whom I viewed an annular eclipse. Most people are familiar with total eclipses, in which the moon blocks out the entire disk of the sun, turning day to night. An annular eclipse occurs when the lunar disk blocks only the center of the sun, leaving a glowing ring—the annulus, or “ring of fire”—around the silhouette of the moon. Safe viewing requires proper tinted glasses, which thankfully Phil had on hand. It was a magical event, as the sunny afternoon turned briefly to twilight.  

Loading the nets with gear for the helicopter airlift.

Other crewmembers came in later that evening. We camped overnight at Grosvenor Arch and arose the next morning to begin preparations for the helicopter airlift. A “heli-tac” crew arrived and began setting out nets to carry our gear. We weighed the various items—including water barrels, plaster, kitchen items, food, jackhammer, and personal gear—and spread them out among the nets. In total, seven helicopter trips to the remote campsite would be required.

The Kaiparowits Formation, aerial view

I was fortunate enough to ride onboard the first trip. What would normally take almost two hours of challenging off-road driving plus another hour of hiking was navigated in a mere five minutes by helicopter. Fortunately, we had a little trouble locating the campsite, forcing us to make a few stunning circles over the rugged, gray-banded terrain.

Most expedition members—including crews from the Natural History Museum of Utah, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the Monument—hiked into camp. Over the course of the week, in addition to prospecting for new sites, we concentrated efforts on five quarries, four of which were discovered and opened last year. One site preserves remains of a crested duck-billed hadrosaur, or lambeosaur. Another features fossils of the horned dinosaur Kosmoceratops. Yet another is producing bones of an as-yet unnamed giant crocodile. And the fourth is yielding beautifully preserved leaf fossils.

A fifth quarry, found during the week by Monument Paleontologist Alan Titus when he headed over a hill to relieve himself, was another duck-billed hadrosaur—this one a juvenile with abundant skin impressions. (The site may have been found independently last year by University of Utah student Katherine [Kat] Clayton and rediscovered by Titus, an invertebrate specialist who has become an ace dinosaur finder.) Alan and I spent three windy, but highly enjoyable days at the site, uncovering much of the skeleton. When I departed, we had not yet determined if the skull was present, but the bones are trending the right direction into the hill, so our fingers are crossed.

Monument Paleontologist Alan Titus with juvenile hadrosaur skeleton
We had cached some equipment and supplies over-winter at the lambeosaur quarry, and were surprised to find the cache ripped apart. A brief inspection revealed that a black bear was the culprit—perhaps a rowdy young male coming down from higher elevations in search of food. Despite more than a decade working in the area, for us this event was a Grand Staircase first. I’m afraid that that, other than some water, the bear did not find much to his liking. Together with the torn plastic water bottles, there was a (previously full) plastic gas container, now bearing multiple tooth punctures. And a bag of plaster was ripped open and dragged around the site, leaving an erratic alabaster trail. The event had occurred recently, as evidenced by the fresh plaster. And the bear left a calling card in the form of a large pile of feces.

The week also yielded some ancient feces, or “coprolites.” Small coprolites, usually attributed to crocodiles, are relatively common finds in the Kaiparowits Formation, but we had not found any clear evidence of dinosaur dung. It was Denver Museum paleobotanist Ian Miller who made the discovery. While out prospecting one day, Ian called me over to look at something strange—a large, isolated mass of convoluted black rock unlike anything else in the area. Ian speculated that it might be dinosaur coprolite and, having seen examples many years before in Montana, I realized that he was likely correct. We could see plenty of organic debris inside the irregular chunks of rock, and even some tunnel-like openings that may be dung beetle burrows. We will pass some samples onto the “Queen of Coprolites”, Karen Chin, at the University of Colorado, to nail down the identification. If we’re correct, Ian has discovered one of the largest known piles of dino poop!

Under Ian’s capable direction, we’re also getting a refined sense of the plants that lived alongside these dinosaurs, crocodiles, turtles and other creatures about 76 million years ago. This week, Ian’s crew collected hundreds of leaves from a single quarry, which will join thousands of others in the collections of the Denver Museum. Many of these leaves show evidence of insect damage, and we plan to undertake a study of these specimens to find out what kinds of insects were present. At another location, Ian and his Denver colleague, vertebrate paleontologist Joe Sertich, showed me a fossilized forest floor revealed in a river cutbank. Remarkably, ferns and other plants can be seen still standing vertically, preserved where they were buried by flooding sediments millions of years ago. We look forward to working up this site in the future.

Graduate student Joshua Lively with new turtle discovery
Back at the lambeosaur quarry, additional work yielded more bones of this giant crested hadrosaur. No skull yet, but we are hopeful here as well. In addition, while removing some of the overlying rock, University of Utah graduate student Jelle Wiersma uncovered a huge turtle shell, measuring about 80 cm in length. Turtle expert Josh Lively was on hand to make the excited identification—an unnamed species of the genus Neurankylus.

All in all it was an amazing week, and we were blessed for the most part with sunny skies. The persistent high winds, although a nuisance at times, kept the gnats down—an even greater blessing. Other natural wonders included assorted wildflowers, spectacular night skies, and an afternoon visit to camp from a young rattlesnake.

Badlands view from camp

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was the last major region of the lower 48 states to be mapped, and for good reason.  Today, this roughhewn and cliff strewn landscape is one of the last largely unexplored boneyards from the Age of Dinosaurs. We are fortunate to be among the first to unearth its many wonders. To date, more than two dozen new dinosaurs have been recovered from these rocks, along with fishes, amphibians, turtles, lizards, crocodiles, mammals, birds, plants, and other organisms [1]. I'll provide more updates in future posts.

1)   Sampson, S. D. 2012. Dinosaurs of the Lost Continent. Scientific American, March, 2012: 40-47.

Annular eclipse image: 
All other images by the author.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Wilding the Mind

I am very fortunate to live in the San Francisco Bay region of northern California. When not traveling, I head out several times a week and hike up into the hilly Marin Headlands, an extensive protected area that few would hesitate to call “nature.” The evergreen shrubs and patchy grasslands afford spectacular coastal vistas and erupt into a kaleidoscope of wildflowers come springtime. The plentiful animal spottings include red-tailed hawks, coyote, alligator lizards, quail, mule deer, rough-skinned newts, gray fox, monarch butterflies, ravens, and even the rare gray whale spout. Occasionally I’m startled by the last-second exit of a slithering garter snake or a bounding rabbit. Bobcats, in contrast, not infrequently sit a few feet off the trail, observing me in that classic disinterested feline manner as I stroll past.
Here, the greatest threats to human life and limb are tics and poison oak, or perhaps a sprained ankle. I’m told that mountain lions still visit the headlands once in a blue moon, but in six years I have yet to glimpse one. (Oh how I would love to see a mountain lion.) Encounters with other humans, although more common than deer sightings, are sufficiently infrequent that I feel I have escaped the anthropocentric world, at least for awhile. In short, my bipedal excursions into the hills come close to epitomizing the idyllic image of a nature outing—a gorgeous setting that replenishes body, mind, and spirit.

Yet, were I to have hiked in this same place 150 years ago—a span of only two human lifetimes—the experience would have been vastly different. It’s for good reason that California’s state animal is the grizzly bear. For thousands of years, local indigenous peoples lived (and occasionally died) under the daily threat of grizzlies. Bears were still a dominant force when Europeans arrived. In 1602, the Spanish maritime explorer SebastiĆ”n VizcaĆ­no elected not to land at certain points along the California coast because of the sheer numbers of these giant carnivores. As European settlements expanded in the ensuing centuries, the golden bears stood fast, killing livestock and wreaking havoc with the settlers. Somewhat ironically, given their name, gold was the bears’ ultimate undoing. Within 75 years of the discovery of this precious metal in California—a single human lifetime—the state’s grizzlies were wiped out, the final one in 1922. The last known human Californian to die in a grizzly attack was lumber mill owner William Waddell, in 1875. A creek in Big Basin Redwoods State Park still bears his name.

Often as I hike the trails near my home, I imagine how I would feel if there were a real chance of running into a grizzly—or wolves, which also lived here. Would I react differently to those rustling bushes? Would I pay greater attention to my surroundings? Would my sense of calm and relaxation be marred by that ever-present possibility of becoming an animal’s next meal? I’m quite certain that the answer would be yes for all of the above. Having spent a significant amount of time searching for fossils in the wilds of sub-Saharan Africa, sometimes in places where big carnivores like lions, leopards, and hyenas still roam, I can attest to the spectrum of emotions experienced when one is a potential link in the food chain. Living in cities devoid of big carnivores, we forget that people throughout almost all of human history have dealt with animal threats.

When our kind first arrived in the northern California area around 13,000 years ago—only 175 human lifetimes—they discovered a landscape more closely akin to the modern Serengeti than to present-day San Francisco. This was the tail end of the Pleistocene, the waning stages of the most recent Ice Age. The region was home to a bewildering array of impressive creatures: mammoths and mastodons, giant ground sloths and camels, broad-horned bison and condors, saber-toothed cats and dire wolves, American lions and short-faced bears. Of this mega-mammal menagerie, Arctodus, the short-faced bear, may have been the greatest terror. Weighing about 2,000 pounds and perhaps 13 feet tall when standing on its hind legs, this massive carnivore would have dwarfed a grizzly. And unlike modern bears, Arctodus was long-legged, built for speed. Imagine rounding the corner on a trail to find yourself face to face with such a creature!

California is not special in this regard. Wherever you live, you can be certain that an abundance of huge animals roamed in the not too distant past—a duration measured in centuries rather than millennia. Rarely do we consider the fact that we inhabit a biological anomaly, an impoverished shadow-realm in which big predators are few, prowling the fringes of our world. For all but a few short geologic intervals during the past 250 million years (following mass extinction events), oversized carnivores have been ever-present in the bulk of Earth’s ecosystems, both on land and in the oceans.

What happened to the wondrous Ice Age beasts in North America and elsewhere? We killed most of them. Yes, debate still ensues over the role of other factors, particularly climate change, but compelling evidence points squarely at us. Humanity originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. In a major exodus that began about 60,000 years ago, we quickly spanned the globe, killing off most of the charismatic megafauna on every newfound landmass, whether island or continent. More recently, armed with boats and increasingly efficient hunting technologies, populations of whales and other sea-going giants have been depleted more than 90%. I don’t mean to imply that humans have never lived in harmony with their native ecosystems. They certainly have. But usually those ecosystems have first been depleted of their big-bodied inhabitants.

Nature in its full glory is messy and dangerous, equally worthy of joy and fear--and sometimes disgust. Parasites, maggots, and coyotes tearing apart week-old fawns are as much a part of the natural world as towering redwoods and soaring eagles. We humans came of age enmeshed in environments at once awe-inspiring and danger-filled. In the sanitized West, we have progressively lost both kinds of experiences, replacing them with a utilitarian substitute that views nature as the ultimate big box store full of commodities.

Today, a growing movement seeks to reinstate that ancient sense of nature as divine, spiritual, or sublime—a sacred ground of being to commune with. But in our earnestness to romanticize nature, we forget the fear factor that is equally a part of our wild heritage. What have we lost by rising to the top of the food chain and vanquishing the bulk of our competitors? What are we missing by living apart from most wild creatures? Given that virtually every ecosystem around the globe has been impacted by human activities, and generally not for the better, what kind of nature is still out there, and where can we find it? What kinds of experiences do we need to form a meaningful bond with nature?

I will explore answers to these questions in future posts. For now, I invite you to head outside and imagine a world in which you share the web of life with a bounty of other large creatures, some of them toothy and meat-loving. These days I regularly engender such thoughts as I wander through the headlands. I find that such machinations are slowly shifting my perspective, helping me see myself as embedded within nature rather than outside and above it.

Equally if not more important are periodic visits to wild places; places where humans are not in control, where nature is raw, untamed, maybe even dangerous. Nighttime walks are especially effective at awakening the senses and opening new windows of awareness. Such experiences will foster not only a sense of awe and wonder, but humility—a sense of something much deeper and more meaningful than our puny human-centered obsessions. Ultimately, the human-nature connection, and perhaps even the path to ecological sustainability, could depend on this periodic wilding of the mind.

Ok, time for another hike . . .

Image Credits (From top to bottom)
Images 1-3 come from the author
Image 4:

Note: The above post was inspired in part by an excellent essay called “False Idyll,” written by J. B. MacKinnon and published in the May/June issue of Orion Magazine.