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