Monday, December 20, 2010

Monday, December 6, 2010

Effective communication is key...

to good lab management. This note says it all.
 "Because it is a pain in the ass to sort through 15,000 samples, twice, to find the six tubes that should have been left in my rack in the first place!"

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Opensource Solvent Gels in paleo

[Stupid, stupid, open access is what I meant, not open source. That's what happens with late night blog posting.]

I'd like to thank Randy Irmis for forwarding this paper to me last week, recently published in Palaeontologia Electronica. The technique described is a very interesting addition to the paleontology toolbox, and I look forward to experimenting with these materials soon. This is also an excellent example of a well-written methods paper, that clearly examines considerations for using these materials and also serves as a great example for preparators who might be looking for inspiration to publish their own take on techniques or tools (and a recommendation to look towards PE as a publishing venue). I'd be very interested to hear results if anyone else has used solvent gels or gives it a shot after reading!

When you peruse this paper, take special note of the attention paid to worker and specimen safety concerns. One part I particularly like is discussion about using judgment to determine whether or not attempts at reversing a treatment will cause more damage than it will undo. Also take a look at Figure 4.5 highlighting airscribe damage to the tooth surface.

Williams, Vincent S, Doyle, Adrian M., 2010. Cleaning Fossil Tooth Surfaces fro Microwear Analysis: Use of Solvent Gels to Remove
Resistant Consolidant. Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 13, Issue 3; 2T:12p;

Fine-scale surface texture analysis of teeth has become increasingly useful for
anthropologists and palaeontologists to infer diet and jaw mechanics in fossil animals.
We describe a fast, non-abrasive and residue free method for the removal of resistant
consolidant from fossil teeth. The method utilises solvent gels, and its use is a significant
improvement over previous techniques, particularly where microwear analysis is
to be performed. The method adapts techniques originally developed by art conservators
for the removal of varnish from oil paintings without damaging the oil paint
beneath. A combination of Carbopol (a water soluble acrylic polymer) and Ethomeen
(a polyoxyethylene cocoamine detergent) allows solvents such as acetone and ethanol
to be suspended in a gel for application to consolidant coated tooth surfaces. Key
advantages are that dissolved consolidant is lifted away from the tooth surface into the
solvent gel and a high degree of control is possible such that small discrete areas can
be cleaned of consolidant. Because the solvents are held within a gel, cleaning of the
tooth surface can be performed without the need for a fume hood.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Sorry I had to leave this behind

While preparing a talk for a visit to Berkeley next week, I came across this image of Mr. Stabby, my favorite Mighty Jack airscribe that I had to leave behind at the Field Museum when I left. He is seen here as painted right before he parachuted into the French hedgerow country in 1944 (we were preparing a lot of gars in those days). I miss you Stabby!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tweezer-tip tip

With apologies for the blurry iPhone photo, here is a nifty little trick that makes handling microfossils infinitely easier. Dipping your tweezer tips once or twice in liquid latex creates a cushioned bulb that allows you to handle small specimens that might be likely to break under the sometimes hard to gauge pressure applied with the tweezers. It also prevents JP Cavigelli's "watermelon-seed-effect," where a little bit of pressure and slipping sends the specimen flying across the room.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Speaking of field jackets....

The gold standard in field jacket opening tools has long been the Stryker Cast Cutting saw, a medical tool designed to open plaster or fiberglass casts on broken bones, and has also been know to crack a calvarium or two. The advantage of this tool is that the blade oscillates through a very narrow range of motion, thereby limiting the amount of cutting possible per contact with a given surface (i.e. won't damage soft tissues easily). Since it doesn't make a full rotation, it is easier to control, safer, and throws slightly less dust than a circular saw.  While generally long lived, the downside of these great tools is that they can cost several grand when bought new. Used they sell for about $500, but it is very hard to judge the condition of a potentially abused saw like this. I've seen several "As Seen On TV" infomercials advertising similar products (like the Fein Multimaster, which I've always wanted one of), and those generally run around $200 as well.

On a trip to Home Depot last week, I came across two $99 varieties of the Stryker-type oscillating tool. This blog has done an apparently thorough job of reviewing the full gamut of available tools, I haven't read most of them, and am just reporting on my experience so far with one of them. Home Depot had both the Rigid JobMax and the Dremel MultiMax available. After walking around with the Rigid for awhile, I put it down and bought the Dremel, for two primary reasons. The Dremel is corded while the Rigid tool is battery powered, one hassle that I'd rather not deal with is batteries running down mid-job. The second reason was very practical, the Dremel display had a whole rack full of replacement blades (for ~$10) while the Rigid did not. So far, I've been very happy with the Dremel Multimax, I'm about halfway through opening a large field jacket, and the tool has been a trooper. The function is very similar to that of the Stryker, feels much lighter and easier to handle over a long use, and doesn't seem to overheat nearly as rapidly as the Stryker does. The M-PACT cast cutting saw that was in the lab when I arrived (and which looked virtually unused) burned up the first time I used it on a large jacket. We'll see how the Dremel holds up over time and I'll report back then, but for now I'm pleased.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Or you could just follow the directions

For a field of study purporting to be a science, it is amazing how much of paleontology remains blissfully unaware of how its methods actually work. As a prime example I submit: The Mixing of Plaster.

My ire was raised again on this topic while unpacking some field jackets collected earlier this summer by another field crew. Instead of gleaming white plaster, or at least mudcaked but well-set plaster, we found fuzzy green and brown, soft, powdery, damp field jackets. There was so much moisture in the incompletely cured jackets that they had molded. I've dealt with so many floppy, improperly cured jackets over the years that I just don't think I can take it anymore.

This topic will follow the model of the SVPOW folks and their MYDD campaign. Thus I say, Follow The Damn Directions (FTDD)! [Sidebar: This commentary will eventually be followed by posts, talks, and papers of expanded theme, Publish Your Damn Preparation Methods (PYDPM)]

Despite the fact that almost every paleontologist who has ever lived has at some point in their lives mixed plaster, even the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology website says this:
"Is there a proper way to mix plaster?
A2: The Simple Answer:
Slowly pour plaster into 1-2 inches of water until little islands of plaster form. Let sit as is for 1-2 minutes before mixing, mix to a creamy smooth consistency. After mixing is complete you’re good to go."

Let's take this opportunity to throw any (quite actually widespread and sometimes militant) fairytale notions of island building right out the window. Now, I don't mean to imply that the collective experience of so many field workers should be enough for this to not be a hotly debated topic. I mean to explicitly state that the setting of plaster is a chemical reaction, governed by the properties of the reactants with very predictable results. Manufacturers ALWAYS have recommended mix ratios on the packaging that will yield the optimal results. The shotgun approach answer is akin to dealing with the question "What glue should I use on fossils." First of all, the formulation of plaster that you buy at Home Depot is very likely quite different from the material that comes from Ace Hardware. Take a look at the number of plasters and gypsum cement available from United States Gypsum alone. Almost every one of them requires a different ratio of powder to water. Some of these ratios vary by as much as 45%. Plaster is a generic term that is absolutely meaningless in a technical discussion about how it works, again, just like "glue". First of all, identify the compound that you are talking about, the functional differences between USG Moulding Plaster and Hydrocal White Gypsum Cement are night and day. There are some excellent instructions for mixing provided at their website, but I'll quote as an introduction this:

"Successful mixing of industrial plasters requires strict adherence to specific standards and procedures. The improvements in plaster formulations made in recent years have resulted in more uniform products, but to obtain the full benefit of these improved products, shop procedures must be standardized."

When I was first instructed in the ways of plaster, I was told "This is just like cooking, keep adding ingredients till it tastes right." Which incidentally also ignores the chemical foundations of cooking. Especially while jacketing, I have often seen workers mix a batch, decide that it is too thin, and then keep adding powder to the mixture until it is deemed "thick enough" to bandage. This is almost always wrong. The whole purpose of making a field jacket is to create a rigid enclosure that will protect the fossils riding inside for not only the trip back to the museum, but also the subsequent days or decades until the block is finally opened. I have opened many field jackets from the first 50 years of the 20th Century where the bones were as well protected and intact as the day they were collected. I've opened many from the last 15 years where the ill-fitting, sometimes aluminum-foil-lined, soft and floppy jackets have allowed the contents to shift around and grind the enclosed bones against one another until rubble remained. 

First identifying the material you are using, become familiar with how it actually works, then understand how you can manipulate the properties of the material to suit your needs. Don't cut corners or guess. Measuring quantities is not difficult. Even for field work. I like to carry plaster in large Ziploc baggies. Depending on the material, I know how many liters of water it takes to properly set that volume of powder, and can accurately (and even more easily) get the results I'm looking for every time. I can't imagine a situation where a technician in a DNA sequencing lab would prepare a gel by adding a pinch of agarose, a teaspoon of buffer solution, then put it on the stove for a while till it looks right. This is science. Follow The Damn Directions.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Well behaved old dinosaur, free to good home

The Field Museum of Natural History is one of my favorite places in the world (just behind the entire city of Paris). I worked there as a preparator for seven years, starting the week I turned 18, working on the Tyrannosaurus rex Sue. I spent much of my childhood visiting the museum (back before it cost over $100 for a family of four to visit), I even ditched the first day of my sophomore year of high school and took the train downtown with a friend to visit the museum.

So obviously last month I was quite disappointed when I saw that Chris Norris posted this Sun-Times article(thanks Sun-Times for maintaining your excellent journalistic standards with your wonderful archives, here is another story covering it) announcing the elimination of 50 more positions at the museum.

Around 70 staff positions were eliminated in late 2008/early 2009, which put the museum below "World War II staffing levels", this next round is going to hurt something fierce. Incidentally, there are now 9 vice presidents, which I think is highly likely 9 times the number of VP's from WWII days. The poor institution has been suffering from cripplingly incompetent management for about a decade now, and with about $2 million tied up in executive level salaries, I kinda don't think laying off housekeeping staff and forcing retirements of curators and collections managers will prove to be a sustainable solution. Now that two million is a drop in the bucket of the $180 million in debt that the institution is currently saddled with, but the museum has been digging this hole since the dozers first broke ground on the new Collections Resource Center under the southeast terrace. Of course this project was a critical step in addressing long term storage needs, but the decision to carry through with the construction as planned, after tourism tanked with 9/11, after the state came through with only 20 of the 40 million that they committed to (despite giving the Chicago Bears $420 million of the $660 million it took to renovate-or destroy, if you ask the Historic Register folks who delisted it- their stadium), and after they realized that the Soldier Field construction was going to virtually eliminate parking and turn the museum into a ghost town for several years.

So, with all of that, I'm not surprised that 5 years after I started looking for a job with a future, all museum employees received the following email:

"Dear Colleagues: As you are aware, we had been planning to roll-out an Early Retirement Incentive Program (ERIP) and a Voluntary Separation Incentive Program (VSIP). The details of the programs have been distributed to those individuals who are eligible. The ERIP notifications were delivered to individuals throughout the day today. The VSIP notifications were sent from me via email this morning. If you have any questions regarding eligibility, please contact your manager, or the HR office... "

Even though I'm not surprised, I'm very, very disappointed.  Maybe the museum should start selling off collections again. After all, a museum that doesn't have the professional staff to care for the collections they do have would be better serving the objects by making sure they find a place that can adequately house, conserve, and curate them. Like the neglected dog tied to the tree in the back yard, the specimens will have a miserable shadow of a life until they wither and die a second death, abandoned and uncared for, a fate which would shortly follow for the rest of the grand old institution.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Live from Pittsburgh!

Well over a year ago I wrote this post about the need for storing chemicals properly (safely, in the appropriate containers and well labeled) in the fossil preparation laboratory. Today's post covers some of the material I could just barely fit into my SVP talk in a truly fantastic preparation session yesterday.

When I arrived at VPL I went on a chemical rampage, replacing all of the secondary containers with Nalgene, and ensuring that all were labeled with complete information about the contents. I'll cite again here the NIOSH/CDC chemistry laboratory guidelines, rule one of which is "Never use food containers for chemical storage" in the section Proper Use of Chemical Storage Containers. My initial labeling consisted of writing on the bottle directly with a Sharpie marker, a system which has a flaw in that all of our solvent based resins will rapidly smear the writing when spilled or dripped. To address this I adopted the method in use by Bill Sander's at the University of Michigan, and others, whereby all bottles are identified by colored electrical tape according to an in-house lab specific color coding scheme. This system is posted on signs throughout the lab, and the redundancy of labeling in writing and marking with tape has thus far eliminated the problem that we had previously encountered where the University Environmental Health and Safety office would cite us for the bottle with a label that was smeary and hard to read. Another tremendous benefit to this system is that it reinforces the fact that the adhesives and consolidants in use are distinct chemicals. Users of adhesives in many paleo labs will blanketly refer to any clear liquid as "Butvar", "B-72", "PVA", "Vinac", etc, etc... typically based on the material that they were first introduced to. As can be seen from the VPL color coding key, we have two types of "Butvar" in active use in the laboratory, Butvar B-76 and Butvar B-98. These two compounds have very different practical uses and should not be considered interchangeable. A distinct and obvious system like color coding promotes recognition of these different materials.

[It is noted that there is a mistake in the color key, Acryloid B-72 is not labeled as being Green, the color that corresponds to it in lab labeling]

Monday, September 27, 2010

Everbody thinks I'm weird for wearing rubber boots...

But this is why we don't store things on the floor. Almost every job that I've had in museums ends up at some point spending a late night mopping up water in the collections. The first two pics are upstairs, where the water was coming in through the walls. Great. This was a few weeks back after the weather system from Tropical Storm Hermine passed through. The basement, no surprise, was worse. Cardboard, paper, and field jackets should always be blocked up off of the floor, on pallets, or preferably shelving. Not only does this keep everything dry during the occasional flood, but also eliminates nesting places for rodents and other pests, and makes the whole place easier to clean. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A seemingly normal latex mold... BUT WAIT!!!

It has not gone unnoticed that this blog has not been updated for over a month, so I figured I'd jump back into it with a real doozy. As I was evaluating the mold and cast collection down in the basement, Dr. Wann Langston advised me to keep a lookout for a, well, a historically interesting mold. I found it today, while looking for something else.  From one angle, it looks like an ordinary, but very old, latex mold of an oreodont skull in a block of matrix. Which it is, mostly. But sometimes it looks like a hot water bottle, though from most angles, it looks like a leathery old, uh, leather purse. And why? Because it has (look close, on the right side!) a ZIPPER! Casting material was poured in from the pour spout on the top, and when the plaster set, the mold was unzipped, allowing the cast to be pulled free of the mold. Wowee.

I mean, holy crow, have you ever seen the likes? I sure haven't. This mold was made by (the very clever indeed) Jim Quinn, when he was Jack Wilson's first grad student here at UT. Quinn finished his Ph.D. in 1954, well after Langston recalls meeting him in 1933 at the Field Museum (where he was a preparator), and even after he published this paper in Fieldiana.  I wouldn't be too keen on trying to get one more cast out of this mold, but I'm definitely going to look for some already existing ones in the cabinets downstairs.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer reading...

All right, in keeping with a recent theme among paleo bloggers I'll hop on this bandwagon too (I hear they have a keg). Like everybody else, I finished Paul Brinkman's book "The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush" about a month ago, and enjoyed it very much. I'll quote below my excellent Amazon review just to save myself the typing:

"Like a time machine:
An exhaustively researched history of a formative time in Vertebrate Paleontology. Beyond being an entertaining record of the successes and frustrations of these early workers in the field, this book serves as an excellent resource for both modern paleontologists and the interested public to understand how the discipline was shaped. From discovery to display, we learn how a surplus of scientific curiosity, the tenacity to brave threatening weather and landscape, skill in the field, and an extraordinary amount of luck must combine to haul these beasts back by wagon and rail to the laboratories of the nation's great museums where they are brought back to life. A quote from Yale paleontologist Richard Swann Lull sums it up, 'The old-time expeditions were staged in the real West, at a time when lack of means of transportation... together with the very intimate contact every fossil hunter must have with his physical surroundings- with fatigue, heat and cold, hunger and thirst- made the search for the prehistoric a real adventure suited to red-blooded men.'
Having worked at several of the institutions and field areas featured within, and with senior generations of paleontologists who knew personally the major characters, this book has provided me with fascinating context and closer ties to the genesis of paleo as we know it today."

I'll say further that one of the things that I appreciate about this book is the fact that Paul has spent much of his museum career working in what are often called "support staff" positions; from field hand, to the prep lab, and collections. This brings a different perspective to the reporting of events, and allows the historian and the reader to understand with a greater depth the motivations behind many of the decisions made.

Another new book on my reading list was "Barnum Brown: The Man Who Discovered Tyrannosaurus rex" by Lowell Dingus and Mark Norell. Reading parts of this book while in the field in Wyoming this summer was great, I knew comparatively little about this iconic figure in paleontology before I began the book, and to realize to what extent I have walked in his footsteps, both in the field and through museums, is pretty exciting, as well as humbling. To have the scale of his collecting summarized in this way was great.

I am now wrapping up the excellent biography of the geologist/cartographer William Smith, The Map That Changed The World. While I have always had a strong interest in history in general, and specifically history of science, I'm finding as I age that understanding events that shaped the field as we know it now is ever more important to understanding today and the future. This is certainly a "Duh" comment, and of course a point that I've always understood intellectually, however reading these books this summer has helped to shape some of my own future goals in ways that I hadn't quite expected, specifically the first two.

Now not all of my reading this summer has been work related, I've also finished Haruki Murakami's short memoir "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" and "Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon's Secret World", and the posthumously published Phillip K. Dick non-scifi novel "Humpty Dumpty in Oakland." The second book is by Berkeley geographer Trevor Paglin, and while the dust jacket makes it out to be something of a high octane romp through clandestine sites (thinking bouncing around the deserts in a Land Rover in aviator glasses, and a photographer's vest), the book is actually much better than that. From the perspective of a geographer, this book serves as more of a history of secrecy in the American government, specifically the military industrial complex, targeting with disbelief the concept of officially disavowing the existence of things that are clearly right there (i.e. satellites, air bases, prisons).

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

7000 of anything is a lot,

even if it is just phonograph needles. These were manufactured at some point before 1954 when Pfanstiehl Chemical Corporation changed their name to Pfansteihl Laboratories. Why do I look these things up? Apparently I don't have enough to do. I'm looking for a volunteer to count them all and see how many needles have been used in the past 56 years. I'm guessing about 30.

[Edited to answer a very good question, this was supposed to be part of the original post]

Q:Were these used as blanks to make needle styli for mechanical prep?
A:Yes, in fact, in the old days before drill bits or carbide were cheap enough or readily accessible enough, phonograph needles were used as a stylus to pick grains of rock from specimens. In lieu of the handy pin vises we use today, these styli would be pounded into a dowel rod, much like many inexpensive dissecting probes are constructed today.

Thanks to Dr. Wann Langston Jr. for comments on the historical background.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I love it when a plan comes together....

Many months ago I launched a project to remodel a small section of the lab known locally as the "Plaster Room". This slightly larger than closet sized subdivision of the lab space started life as a dark room, then became a general purpose/storage/yes, plaster room with a large restaurant type sink and sediment trap. Speaking of sediment traps, its probably about time to muck that thing out. But I digress.

My plan was to install a fume hood sorry, VENT hood that I rescued from the surplus warehouse way back in the fall (er, end of summer/ almost A COMPLETE FREAKING YEAR AGO!!!!!) My estimate request was submitted in early January, the work order in early April, and by the end of July it has finally come to pass. I suppose it could be worse. The original estimate came in at $6500 for installation, including a 20% contingency. Now that we are calling it a fume hood vent hood, hopefully the final cost will be down considerably. I eagerly await review of the itemized budget.

(Continued below the fold...)


After making a few tweaks to the original plan, namely coincidentally luckily having enough room to place the fume hood vent hood in line with the new counter instead of perpendicular to it against the window brilliantly planning all of the dimensions with 1/8" clearance on all sides, the cabinets are in, the hood is in and functioning, acid is finally properly stored (and segregated by compatibility!), and very soon an eyewash will be installed in the sink directly opposite the hood. After many months of frustration, I am finally almost through with this room!

P.S. I just noticed that the original sales pitch sketch was created on October 27 of last year, and the project was completed today, the 27 of July, a full nine months later! Spooky.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Taking a microscope in the field

"What the What?!!" you might be saying in response to the title of this post, but, no, really, I mean it.

And since I'm just back from 7 weeks in the field, a funeral, a little bit of personal travel, and trying to fit laundry in somewhere, a field related post seems to appropriate.

 Inspired by the Wild Heerbrugg Field Cover for the M5 and M11 microscopes, of which I can't find a single decent picture online, I put together a package to bring a newer, less complicated, but still decent Wild M3 stereo microscpe into less than lab conditions. Now, that could be a classroom, a fossil ID day, or a remote field site. At the recommendation of my friend Mike, and scope guy at Natural History Studio, I picked the M3 based on its minimum number of moving parts, ability to seal it up against dirt and debris, and small size.  While many different microscopes could be used, the choice of a Wild is a no-brainer, they are simply the best. Instead of the nifty hood, I opted for a slightly more protective and far larger Pelican hard case. The sacrifice of space allows room for all sorts of accessories and tools, including attachments like the photoport pictured at left, as well as airscribes, illumination, pinvises, etc. Since the two layers of foam lining allow the container to be customized as needed, the liners can even exchanged and outfitted for different projects.

For instance, one set could be cut out for the scope, photoport, camera, adapters, and maybe even a computer or netbook for microphotography during collections visits. Another option would be to add a lightweight and quiet air compressor to your kit, coil up some hose, scribes, and a regulator and stow those in the Pelican case for a self contained portable microprep workstation.

For some time I pondered the best way to light a scope in the middle of nowhere without a large power source, and after staring at a spare ringlight in the bottom of one of my crap drawers for a while, the idea to use a flashlight hit me.  I went to the hardware store and picked up a 100 lumen LED flashlight that runs on 4 AA batteries. The light at the focal plane can be focused by positioning the lightsource at a proper distance from the end of the fiber optic cable. To do this I drilled out a dowel rod to function as an adapter between the two, which creates a somewhat bright field in the case of intense ambient light (sunlight/interior), and sufficient lighting during dim conditions. This setup proved invaluable this field season during a period of limited time available for ID and cataloging before the trip back home.

Monday, May 17, 2010

She's Built!

and We Built Her!

Is what the tagline on our official Sue Crew t-shirts said. Today is the ten year anniversary of Sue the T. rex's unveiling at the Field Museum. A whole lot of hoopla was involved in every aspect of this critter, and rather than get into any sentimental recollections about the great crew or the exciting project, I'll let Chris Brochu do the talking...

"In a sense, working with FMNH PR2081 has been a good example of what Sagan (1997) called "the marriage of skepticism and wonder." This animal may have died alone of old age, with not a scratch on him or her, but this was a 41 foot long bipedal carnivorous dinosaur. It had foot-long teeth, olfactory bulbs the size of grapefruit, and the capacity to balance an enormous head and massive tail on only two legs. Such an animal needs no embelishment."

Brochu, C.R. 2003. Osteology of Tyrannosaurus rex: insights from a nearly complete skeleton and high-resolution computed tomographic analysis of the skull. Memoirs of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. 7: 1–138.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Computed Tomography In The Time Of Fossil Preparation

[The readership should expect a significant improvement in this post over recent ones, which have received complaints.  Granted, those complaints come from bloggers whose bread and butter is posting links to new papers, so I'm still going to stand by my original contributions, however uninspired they may be. This one should be good though. Taxonomic details will remain vague until analysis is complete.]

The University of Texas at Austin is well known in the paleo community for its innovative and groundbreaking work with CT technology, that was certainly one of the strengths of the lab that I was most aware of before taking this job. I had already spent many hours cruising the DigiMorph site, and knew how useful the technology was as a resource for imaging specimens (and for finding awesome desktop background images), but it took actually seeing the process in action with a few specimens to realize just how amazing its integration into my workflow could really be.  You can expect to see a series of posts, talks, papers (including talks by Sebastian Egberts, Bill Simpson, and myself at the Third Annual FPCS meeting in Chicago later this month) on this topic in coming months and years from VPL, this post will detail the process of scanning a block outside of our UT lab.

Last fall Sebastian was working on a block filled mostly with larger elements of a partial skeleton, but kept uncovering tiny bones in some parts of the jacket. We came to realize that there could be important taxonomic information present in the location and orientation of the bones in the block, and wanted both a three dimensional record of where elements came from as they were before being removed from the jacket, and an idea of what to expect as work progressed. The larger scanner at UTCT accommodates objects up to 15cm at the long axis, and is intended for individual elements, not large field jackets. This block was approximately 75cm long, and would not fit in our scanners. Through the generosity of Dr. George Rodgers, we were able to have the jacket scanned at the Austin Heart Hospital in a medical CT scanner, which in addition to being incredibly useful, was a fun experience for all involved.

The Heart Hospital has a software program that is programmed to render the Xray data based on density of biological tissues, using a series of presets to highlight whatever it is that the physician is looking for. These presets were not very effective at discerning fossil bone from rock, so the raw data was sent over to the staff at UTCT for final processing. We can use a combination of the original slices and 3D models generated by the CT lab to help us in the prep lab. This allows us to gain significant insight into what we will likely encounter while working through the block. The final image is a close up of the CT techs monitor, which gives a brief snapshot overview of the block on the left, and the actual Xray slice on the right, which is perpendicular to the long axis of the block.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Following up on shipping

Ok, as promised a few weeks ago, a quick look at the method that we came up with to pack these specimens for shipping. I'm gonna state at the outset that I'm not really committed to this post, so if it suffers for quality, well, don't be surprised.

As with the Homotherium skull, we thought it prudent to immobilize the blocks of rock completely, lest they rocket through the side of the plywood when the package inevitability negatively accelerates from 80 mph to zero in 1.4 seconds. And like the Homotherium cast, we used polyurethane foam on the blocks that were 125+ lbs. Basically, I just packed a plastic bag between the wall of the crate and the specimen, then filled it with expanding foam. Here are some pictures.

One bag of foam was set on top of the block, then the lid was placed down to create a solid and tight fit. Finally, all of the empty space was filled with bubble wrap.  That was a purely psychological move, as it would almost certainly do nothing if the rest of the packing failed in any way, other than maybe keep pieces from floating around if any chunks of rock spalled off.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

When Fox News comes for you!

A few weeks back Fox News gave a poor entomologist a hard time about getting grant money to spend on collections improvement. If you haven't heard about this already (I hadn't) the short of it was that Tucker Carlson interviewed an Average Looking Scientist (ALS) about the need to keep pests out of biological collections, answers to which he gave in a responsible yet not too quippy way. While he didn't say anything outrageous, the takeaway from the story was that Obama was killing kittens with taxpayer dollars. I know, I know, that's what I would do if I were President too, but some cable news people enjoy being surrounded by animals that don't like them.

In a moment of digital esprit d'escalier, Chris Norris over at Prerogative of Harlots has written some great responses to the questions that Carlson asked, but at this late date they can only serve to teach us a valuable lesson.

My point, and thus how it relates to paleontology, is this- A few times in the past I've posed the question "Why does vertebrate paleontology matter, why is it important that we do that voodoo that we do so well?" Notably, a little over a year ago, I asked this question on the vertpaleo listserv, to see what kind of acceptable soundbite type, media savy, answers that we could get to answer questions when cases like this arose. There were somewhere between 35 and 50 replies, and the responses for the most part fell into two general classes, the group saying "Well, a lot of paleontologists teach med school, so we wouldn't have doctors without paleontologists", and the other group, quoting roughly from one vocal email "anybody who doesn't like what I do can go to hell." Well thanks ladies and gentlemen! Just what I was looking for, media savy. I would also like to tell Tucker Carlson to go to hell, and worse, but that doesn't exactly help the cause, and what do you do when your legislator asks that question?

Since the profession of physician was established at least a few weeks before the first fossils were collected, and since no one really cares about quality health care in American anyway, I think the first suggestion is easily sunk as a newsworthy response. The second has some obvious flaws that I won't even bother going in to. Look, I know it is hard to say clever things on camera, especially if someone like Carlson is interviewing you for Sean Hannity's program, that is a lot of pressure at the national stage. But that is also why it is imperative, for the sake of science funding, to have ducks in a row long before these opportunities come along. Otherwise, when Fox comes to your collection, they won't just make you look like a jackass, they'll equate your research to domestic terrorism.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The New Yankee Workshop

It all started with the surplus warehouse. That place gets me into all kinds of trouble. I found a couple of Steel Fixture collections cabinets just, well, just sitting there looking so lonely. They needed to be in a place full of other cabinets. Plus, I needed some cabinets in the lab, trying to streamline work flow and keep track of volunteer and student projects. Unfortunately, the drawer size was different than anything we had in stock in the lab. And then all this happened. Thirty drawers in 8 hours. Of course, the pneumatic brad nailer is my favorite tool, because it is basically a firearm, my favorite class of tools.

Marking the fronts for drawer pull cutouts, using Tupperware as a template, because it was handy.

Just a jigsaw and clamp for cutting out those cut outs. Edges were rounded over with a rat-tail file quickly, this is soft pine, and smoothed out with sandpaper. Remember Norm's words of wisdom... the most impahtant paht of shop safety is your saftey glahses.

Sides, fronts, and backs were glued, then clamped together upside down, bottoms were glued and then nailed in place, clamps removed, and edges were nailed tight.

Return of Da Bears

Remember Walter Payton and the Fridge? Walter is still on ice, but the Fridge has been thoroughly defleshed, and has finally made it to the five gallon bucket stage.

That is one fat bear. It is obviously from Chicago.

Rinsing in ammonia, almost done!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Crate Escape

Sometimes, a cardboard box just isn't enough to get a specimen from A to B, here I'll run through the steps that we just went through to prepare a giant outgoing loan. The specimen consisted of several large blocks of rock containing vertebrate bones. The specimen is an unprepared mosasaur that is being shipped to Canada for preparation and description, a point that I won't elaborate on further because I don't really care that much about mosasaurs except, in this case, to get them to their destination safely, and what I really want to talk about is last week's construction of the shipping crates.

Collections manager Lyndon Murray divided the 27 blocks of matrix into relatively weight balanced groups, which led us to building 5 crates, all somewhere between 32" x 48" inches in length and width. Lyn scaled up some simply designed crates that we had lying around in the building, and started measuring out all of the lumber, which I then cut.

The sides and tops of each crate were formed with 1/2" plywood reinforced with 1x4s around the outer edges, glued and fastened with a nail gun. (My favorite sawhorses, Rubbermaid storage bins. Also, use eye and hearing protection when using power tools.)

The bottom of each crate was a 2x4 frame, glued with Elmer's Wood Glue,(laid out for assembly here) and affixed with screws to another piece of 1/2" ply. Note Dr. Murray modeling the Elmer's.

All six panels are finished at this stage, with one side off to show the construction. All screw holes are predrilled, and sides attached to the 2x4 base, and to each other. The lid is also screwed down after packing is complete, each hole is circled just so it is clear down the road where screws should go when the crate is resealed. Also, one end receives a registration mark so it is immediately obvious how it all goes back together.

The final crates, we allotted two days for construction, and it took slightly over a week. Not a big surprise there. Next up, packing the heavy buggers.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

FedEx-proofing your packages

Ok, so I've got six weeks of catching up to do, I have been totally slacking off on blog updates. No good excuses, spent most of this weekend sleeping, eating BBQ at the Salt Lick, and watching movies on IFC and the Sundance Channel. Anyway, on to paleontology.

By the way, the title of this post is not reflective of the opinions of my employer, in fact, I've been shafted by all of the common carriers, FedEx is just the one who's done it most recently. The VPL recently loaned a cast of a Homotherium serum skull from Freisenhahn Cave here in Texas to the Field Museum for a traveling exhibit that they've developed called Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age. This cast happened to be awesomely made of bronze, so it weighed about 25 pounds with wicked scimitar teeth sticking out at crazy angles. After {common carrier} loads it's prepaid and heavily insured (but don't worry, that insurance doesn't actually cover any of the stuff you'd want it to, just set that money on fire and then flush it down the toilet) cargo into the catapult and points it roughly in the direction of the address on the label, you really start to hope it hits the pile of mattresses outside the "sorting facility". Since we here at VPL extra-love big chunks of fossil shaped metal, we decided to give this specimen the best chance we could of surviving the trip.

The elegant solution to this problem was boxing the specimens in expanding polyurethane foam, in this case some leftover Polytek Polyfoam. First, the bottom of the box was lined with a plastic bag, a small quantity of foam was mixed and poured into the bag, and then as the foam began to expand the bag was closed up and the skull pressed into it to create a very snug form fitting barrier. You'll notice the aluminum foil that is scrunched up into any undercuts, so that unpacking the specimen does not require the use of a saw, fire, teeth, or any of those other old stand-bys.

An additional small bag was poured to surround the mandibles, and then a final cap was made to fill in the top of the cardboard box. The last two pictures show the top of the foam packing in place... the box closed up, and for maximum survivability, double boxed with packing peanuts. This method of completely encapsulating the object in foam eliminates any space for the specimen to accelerate from one side of the package to another, which normally breaks things up but contains them within the original packaging. In the case of a twentyfive pound pointy alloy of copper and tin, it would tend to accelerate right through the side of the package. When you try to file a claim on that, Fe{common carrier}Ex will just tell you that it was not packed properly to sustain a fall of 132 stories, and that next time you need to provide receipts for your packing material.

Monday, March 8, 2010

3rd Annual Preparation Symposium update

Just a reminder that there is one week left until the early registration deadline for this year's Prep and Collections Symposium.

Registration forms can be downloaded from

Here is the schedule, some AWESOME looking talks and workshops! What a lot of fun this will be!

Schedule of Events – Thursday, April 29th
9:00 AM Registration at West Entrance
Refreshments and light edibles available
Meet and greet, organize for tours

9:15 Collections and Laboratory Tours: participants placed upon arrival
Collection Resource Center
Fossil Mammal Collections, McDonald’s Fossil Preparation Laboratory,
Fossil Fish Collection, Herpetology Collection, Preparation Laboratories

12:00 PM Lunch served on Northwest Terrace (weather permitting)
In the case of inclement weather, lunch will be served in Lecture Hall 2

1:30 Roundtable Discussions
Air Abrasion Facilities & Techniques – J.P. Cavigelli and Anthony Maltese
Classroom B
Lab Safety, OSHA standards and MSDS – Jolynn Parchen
BioSync Conference Room
Laboratory Renovations and Design – Matt Brown
Ward Lecture Hall
Collecting Large Vertebrate Specimens – Mike Getty and Eric Lund
Lecture Hall 2

3:00 Break: refreshments available at west entrance

3:30 Roundtable Discussions
Molding, Casting and Reconstruction – Erin Fitzgerald and Tyler Keilor
Classroom B
Collections Management, Rehousing, and Organization - William Simpson
Fossil Mammal Collection
Volunteer Programs – Dennis Kinzig and Karen Nordquist
Classroom A
Professional Development – Greg Brown, Marilyn Fox, Matt Brown
Lecture Hall 2

5-9:00 Opening Reception
Rice Gallery, Main Floor (Center West), The Field Museum
Pizza, Beer and Beverages served

Schedule of Events – Friday Morning, April 30th
9:00 AM Registration at West Entrance
Refreshments and light edibles available

Platform Presentations: Ward Lecture Hall

9:15 Opening Remarks: Peter Makovicky, Chair, Geology Department

9:30 Simpson, William: 3D Surface Imaging of a Tyrannosaurus rex Skeleton Using Computed Tomography (CT) and Laser Scanning

9:45 Egberts, Sebastian: Use of Computed Tomography (CT) Data in Physical Preparation of Fossil Vertebrates

10:15 CarriĆ³, Vicen: Protocols of Packaging and Moving Specimens: organization strategies for institutions

10:30 Van Beek, Constance: Preparation of Micro-features of Eocene Green River Formation Specimens: materials and methods

10:45 Break: refreshments available at west entrance

11:00 Wylie, Caitlin D.: Preparation and Society: fossil preparation techniques in the 19th century and today

11:15 Williams, Scott A.: The Permian Challenge: preparing small fossil tetrapods from Richard’s Spur, Oklahoma

11:30 Fry, Roger F. and Derek J. Main: Mapping and Excavating a Mid-Cretaceous Crocodile (Archosauria: Goniopholidae) at a Large Urban Dig Utilizing and All Volunteer Crew: the Arlington Archosaur Site, North Central Texas

11:45 Brown, Matthew: Renovation and Modernization of the University of Texas at Austin Fossil Preparation Laboratory

12:00 PM Lunch served on Northwest Terrace (weather permitting)
In the case of inclement weather, lunch will be served in Lecture Hall 2

1:00 PM McDonald, H. Gregory: A Brave New World: The Paleontological Resources Protection Act of 2009: collection management partnerships between federal agencies and non-federal repositories, a view from the National Park Service

1:30 Boonchai, Nareerat, Steve Manchester and Terry Lott: Methods for the Preparation and Anatomical Analysis of Eocene Leaf Cuticles from Puryear Claypit, Western Tennessee

1:45 Smith, Matthew E.: Preparation Methods for Fossil Invertebrates from Florida and the Caribbean Islands

2:15 Break: refreshments available at west entrance

2:30 Cavin, Jennifer L.: Cast Cutter Versus Hand Saw: an experiment in opening field jackets

2:45 Evander, Robert L.: Preventative Maintenance for Air Scribes

3:00 Nelson, Thomas L., Jennifer M. Grasso and Philip A. Gensler: Addressing a Critical Need Within the Collections at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument: refined and improved techniques and materials for the production of multi-size clam shell specimen cradles

3:30 Beiner, Gali Gali and Rivka Rabinovich: An Elephant Task: conservation methods of middle Pleistocene proboscidian remains from Revadim, Israel

3:45 Morrison, Ian:

4:00 Poster Session: Lecture Hall 2
Boonchai, Nareerat Excavating Dinosaurs in Nakhon Ratchasima, Northeastern Thailand: how to deal with hard rock and fragmented bones
Fitzgerald, Vicki: Reproductive Health and Safety for Employees Working in Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratories
Maltese, Anthony: Enclosed Workspaces for Air Abrasion of Large Fossil Specimens
Potapova, Olga: Preservation Techniques and Documentation Procedures for Collections at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs Inc., South Dakota
Val, Sandra Preparation of Dinosaur Eggshells: new insights on traditional techniques

5:00 PM Meeting adjourned for the day

Schedule of Events – Saturday, May 1st
9:00 AM Workshops
Refreshments and light edibles available on the 3rd Floor

Archival Materials and Techniques for Fossil Preparation
Amy Davidson, Rm 3107 Fossil Preparation Lab.

Techniques for Acid Preparation
Jim Holstein, Rm 3112 Fossil Preparation Lab.

Creating Temporary Support Structures for Preparation
Debbie Wagner, Rm. 3226

Histology Techniques at The Field Museum
Akiko Shinya, Rm. 3013 Rock Sawing & Sample Prep. Lab.

12:00 PM Lunch served on Northwest Terrace (weather permitting)
In the case of inclement weather, lunch will be served in Lecture Hall 2

1:00 Workshops

Archival Materials and Techniques for Fossil Preparation
Amy Davidson, Rm 3107 Fossil Preparation Lab.

Techniques for Acid Preparation
Jim Holstein, Rm 3112 Fossil Preparation Lab.

Creating Temporary Support Structures for Preparation
Debbie Wagner, Rm. 3226

Histology Techniques at The Field Museum
Akiko Shinya, Rm. 3013 Rock Sawing & Sample Prep. Lab.

4:00 Workshops adjourn

6:00 PM Symposium Dinner Reception, offsite (see map & directions on p.6)
Museum Point Tower 3
233 East 13th St.

Contact Lisa Herzog for further information:
Direct: 312-665-7626

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Proceedings of the 1st Annual FPCS- FREE!

For all of you fans of paleontology methods (and if you are interested in any aspect of paleontology, this should be you), the following should be right up your alley.

After much anticipation, Methods in Paleontology: Proceedings of the First Annual Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium, edited by M.A. Brown, J.F. Kane, and W. G. Parker, 2009, is finally available for distribution in PDF format. Copyright on all papers is retained by the individual authors, and is made available for free distribution electronically.

I'm proud to see this collection of very good papers finally hit the streets in portable document format, and would like to give everyone involved in the process a big pat on the back, congratulations folks, this is a big step for the field. Thanks to the authors, my co-editors, reviewers, proofreaders, and supporters who kept this project more or less on track over the last two years since the idea to host such a meeting was hatched.

Old timers like me who insist on hard copies can purchase a beautiful printed volume to help fill the prep reference shelves of their bookcase here.

An extra bonus!

The abstract book from the meeting

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Busy start to the year and more free papers coming soon...

The free papers line is really just a teaser to get you in here, I promise I won't cry wolf next time, I've got the Petrified Forest Proceedings Volume ready to post, the PDFs will go online soon. A while back I posted a link to Geological Curator Volume 5 no.7 (1987) Proceedings of the 1986 GCG Conference which is devoted to the Conservation of Geological Material and edited by Crowther and Collins. But since I'm an idiot, the real issue to check out is Volume 4, no. 7, not 5. Sorry about that, the issue is worth reading.

If I were a resolving kind of man, on New Years Eve I would have decided to say NO to starting any more projects before I finish the ones that are ongoing, but alas, I am weak, and get something of a rush from being in over my head. The semester is ramping up, and there are a ton of people (students, volunteers, and staff, about a dozen) working in the lab throughout the week. Which means that I need to do a better job with both records and specimen management (can anyone say database?).

At least I am almost done with the manuscript to send to the editors of the special Geological Curator SVP/SPPC Preparation Session Volume, which is already way over due. That will be out this spring, I'd like to encourage anyone who has talked about submitting to get on the ball and actually do so, they are good people. I'd like to say thanks to Remmert Schouten, Matthew Parkes, Paolo Viscardi, and Gareth Dyke, for making sure this happens!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Welcome back to work

So, on Monday my flight arrived in Austin at about 12:30pm, and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to swing by the lab on my way home (it's not on the way) even though I'd been traveling for 28 hrs and no sleep. Still, it was good to be back, and the lab is more like home than home anyway, for the most part.

Please bear through the long story before the juicy pics. (You'll appreciate the double pun in a few minutes.)

I was informed on arrival that the power had gone out to the buildings that house our bug room and recent prep lab. After a bit of trouble shooting by facilities, they determined that the main power supply had shorted due to a waterline break not too far away. This means replacing 1000 feet of power supply, which will take quite a while. In the meantime, we're temporarily powering three 25 cubic foot deep freezers with a generator, the fourth trips the breaker. So, we had to consolidate some partially thawed, partially bagged, partially tagged, completely smelly critters of all wonderful drippy sorts out of the fourth into the other pretty full three freezers. Luckily, some of that was bags of "Biological Waste", so Environmental Health Services is coming by soon to pick up 25 gallons worth of parts. For the rest we did a pretty good job of playing freezer Tetris, chipping the ~1-2 inches of frost off the walls helped. We found some turtles, tons of birds, flat rabbits, bags of goo, a coral snake, bags of assorted parts, croc chunks, and at the very bottom sitting in two inches of blood and water, two bears. As AJ put it, "Some days this job is just like Christmas." Amen.

Shhh, he's sleeping. Thats the small one, I call him Walter Payton.

This one is The 'Fridge. We couldn't find room for him in the freezer, so in a few days when thawed, he will finally get dissected and macerated, since the bug colony has been frosted out. The typically 80 degree room was in the 40s when I checked it Monday, and there isn't much buggy activity in any of their tanks these days.