Monday, March 29, 2010

I Got the Surprise - the Surpise of My Life and You'll Never Guess Where?


I couldn't resist quoting an old Judy Garland classic, but it really wasn't a surprise. Dr. Paula Mikkelsen, Associate Director for Science at PRI is "on location" in Chicago doing some research on her BivAToL project and she sent home a great picture from The Field Museum of Natural History. Can you guess what that picture is? Come on guess!

Well OK -- it's a picture of one of the first casts of Museum of the Earth's very own Hyde Park Mastodon. How cool is that?

The cast of our Hyde Park Mastodon is part of the Field Museums newest temporary (and soon to travel) exhibition entitled: Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age on display through September 6, 2010.

PRI's Hyde Park Mastodons skeleton is 95% complete and is one of the most complete skeletons on display in North America. If you can't make it to the Museum of the Earth here in Ithaca to see the original be sure to make it to the Field or see it "on the road."

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Award Goes To...

Jim Dufoe surrounded by Middle Ordovician dolomite in a quarry just west of Beloit, Wisconsin.

The Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) will be awarding its annual Katherine Palmer Award to Jim Dufoe today, Friday, March 26 at the Mid-Atlantic Paleontology Societies (MAPS) annual Fossil Expo at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois.

Each year, PRI recognizes an individual who is not a professional paleontologist for the excellence of their contributions to the field. The Katherine Palmer Award is named after PRI’s second director, Katherine Palmer, who held avocational paleontologists in high regard and collaborated with many during her long career.

Dufoe is an avid collector of Ordovician fossils in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. He has an especially good eye for finding unusual fossils such as chitons – multivalved mollusks also known as polyplacophorans or “coat-of-mail shells.” Over the past 15 years, he has worked closely with Dr. John Pojeta Jr. of the U.S. Geological Survey and a member emeritus of PRI's Board of Directors, who nominated Jim for this award and named a chiton species after Jim in 2003. Jim is also active with local colleges and museums and has organized fossil and mineral collections at Beloit College and Milwaukee Public Museum.

Congratulations to Jim for an award that is very well deserved!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tracking Climate in Your Backyard

4-H Educators working on a weather activity at PRI's 2009 workshop.

More than twenty 4-H educators and volunteers from across New York state will be meeting at the Paleontological Research Institution's (PRI) Museum of the Earth from March 23-24 to take part in a citizen science initiative called Tracking Climate in Your Backyard. These educators will be introduced to a new curriculum on climate and weather created by PRI's Global Change Project manager Trisha Smercak.

Tracking Climate in Your Backyard is a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project that seeks to engage youth in real science through the collection, recording, and understanding of precipitation data in the forms of rain, hail, and snow. The partners in this collaboration are the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) and its Museum of the Earth, New York State 4-H, and the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS). The latter is a citizen science project that has participants record precipitation measurements in an online database.

"We teach the teachers," stated Dr. Rob Ross, associate director for outreach at PRI. "The participants in these trainings go back to their home groups and use the tools and the curriculum that we've created to teach their constituents about weather and climate in ways that best fits with their needs." Nancy Robertson, a 4-H educator in Saratoga County and is attending next weeks workshop for the second year, believes that this program "fulfills a need in the local 4-H community." She goes on to say, "The information and activities have been useful. It has made me more secure in my knowledge of weather and sparked my interest to learn more. The basics of atmospheric pressure and temperature fluctuation are very important to understand, especially now."

The purpose of this project and its associated curriculum is to encourage youth, specifically ages 8-12, to better understand the scientific process by engaging in it themselves through the collection and understanding of meteorological data in their community. By following the precipitation measurement guidelines of CoCoRaHS, youth develop an understanding of scientific methods and standardization, and by recording their precipitation records (including recording the lack of precipitation), they recognize the importance of accurate data collection. Finally, by importing their data into a national database, they can see how their community precipitation data compares to communities near and far. Their data is then analyzed by scientists to better understand the spatial variability of precipitation and develop warning systems for flooding and other natural disasters. In particular, hail is very poorly understood in the scientific community, and data provided by public in communities like ours can help illuminate better scientific understanding of hail and of meteorology in general.

Trisha Smercak of PRI believes "that just the idea that youth know that they are contributing to a scientific cause can be tremendously influential.” This workshop, now in its second year, along with this new curriculum gives these participating informal educators the tools they need to go back into their communities and give young people the opportunity to fully participate in real world scientific research.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Fossil of the Week

17 March 2010 – Goose Barnacle

This interesting looking fossil is part of a goose barnacle, or stalked barnacle (Phylum Arthropoda, Infraclass Cirripedia, Order Pedunculata). It is the holotype specimen* (PRI 3412) of Euscalpellum crassissimum Withers, 1951, from the Upper Eocene, of Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of South America.

Like all barnacles, this is a sessile crustacean that filters food particles from seawater by fanning the water with modified legs.** Unlike more typical barnacles, goose barnacles have a long neck (hence the common name) called a peduncle, the base of which is attached to the substrate. Shelly plates cover the body of the barnacle at the other end of the peduncle. Interestingly, this fossil species is so far apparently known only from its plated peduncle, but it’s a very large peduncle, 104 mm (more than 4 inches) long in the holotype. So when alive, this specimen was likely over 6 inches in length.

Living goose barnacles are eaten by humans in Portugal and Spain, as an expensive delicacy known as percebes.

*See Fossil of the Week 8/19/09 - Cerithium gainesensis for a definition of "holotype."

**See Fossil of the Week for 2/17/10, Big-Mouthed Barnacle!, for more general information about barnacles.

Text by Paula Mikkelsen

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Exploring the Evolution of Biodiversity at the Museum of the Earth

The Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) and its Museum of the Earth unveil their latest exhibit -- One Fish, Two Fish, Old Fish, New Fish*: Exploring the Evolution of Biodiversity which details how new species arise through a process called speciation. This exhibit was designed and developed in cooperation with Dr. Richard Harrison, chair and professor in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, and is the continuation of a nearly $700K grant that was awarded Harrison from the National Science Foundation.

Earth is home to nearly 2-million species, that we know of, and countless more await discovery! Many scientists think that the actual number might be over 10-million, and if you add extinct species to the equation that number reaches into the 100's of millions! Species are the raw materials for biodiversity— the variety of life, both past and present. This includes humans, along with plants, animals, fungi, and microbes ¬— from bacteria to grass, insects to cats, and dogs to dinosaurs.

As we look at all the diversity of life around us we are constantly reminded —speciation happens! This new and exciting exhibit at the Museum of the Earth explains what a species is and how new species evolve—it looks at what creates barriers to gene flow—at the ways species diverge or change enough to become new species—and at how new species endure. What would an exhibit about new life be without live specimens— chirping crickets, cichlids, and lizards help us tell the tale. Cases of taxidermied specimens (spiders, scorpions, and finchs), along with fabulous fossils from PRI's world-class collection (snails, trilobites, eurypterids, and bivalves) help pull the story through time.

Leaping Lizards! Visitors to the Museum of the Earth are checking
out some of the live specimens on display in our temporary exhibit.

"It's been fantastic working with Dr. Harrison and his team at Cornell," stated Dr. Sarah Chicone, director of exhibits at PRI. "We are in a really unique position because we get such high quality scientific content from our relationship with researchers at Cornell University which then gives us the opportunity to make that same high quality content accessible to the public in a way that is understandable for people on all levels. For this exhibit we were able to work with other departments and researchers at Cornell through relationships with Dr. Kerry Shaw from Neurobiology and Behavior, and Dr. Linda Rayor from Entomology, along with Dr. Richard Glor a Cornell alum and now in the Biology department at the University of Rochester. Their help and guidance aided us in making this exhibit fun and exciting."

This exhibit celebrates the International Year of Biodiversity. 2010 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Biodiversity. It is a celebration of life on Earth and of the value of biodiversity for our lives. The major goal of the year is to encourage everyone to become educated and take action in 2010 to safeguard the variety of life on earth, what is commonly called “biodiversity”. To that end, PRI has committed its 2010 programming, its research, and its temporary exhibits to this theme.

*ONE FISH, TWO FISH, RED FISH, BLUE FISH™ & © 1960 Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Gurche Reconstructions | Smithsonian Human Origins Program

Photo courtsey of Rachel Philipson Photography & Design

Check out this video of PRI's Artist-in-Residence as he discusses his latest work set to go on display at the Smithsonian on March 17!
Gurche Reconstructions | Smithsonian Human Origins Program

This Weekend at the Museum of the Earth

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Chiliean Earthquakes

Sara Auer, Geoscience Education Resource Developer at PRI next to the
Museum of the Earth's seismograph as it was reading today's earthquake.

Ever since the massive magnitude 8.8 quake that struck Chile on February 27th, a series of smaller quakes have been striking the surrounding areas. These quakes or "aftershocks" are expected in the wake of a quake of such magnitude as the fault zone readjusts itself. These aftershocks have been as large as a magnitude 7.2; similar in size to the recent Haiti earthquake! These aftershocks can continue for up to weeks or even months after the original quake, along the 250mile rupture zone. Though it may take years to evaluate the full effects of this quake, scientists have already estimated that the city of ConcepciĆ³n (proximally located to the initial quake) has moved 10 feet to the west!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fossil of the Week

3/10/10 – The Hodson Collection

Here’s a very nicely preserved ark clam named Arca (Scapharca) mirandana H. K. Hodson (in F. Hodson, H. K. Hodson & Harris), 1927. Your first question is probably “why the extra long name?” That is largely due to mixed authorship – a practice that is a little awkward but is still done today. More about this below.

The publication: In the 1927 paper written by Floyd Hodson, Helen Hodson, and Gilbert Harris (Bulletins of American Paleontology no. 49, “Some Venezuelan and Caribbean Mollusks”), the authors apparently split up the duties. Some of the new species in this paper are authored by Floyd Hodson; others are authored by Helen Hodson or the two of them together. I do not see any species authored by Gilbert Harris, who was probably an advisor on the project [he was Floyd’s graduate advisor at Cornell University in the 1920s]. The paper is an unusual one in another aspect – it includes many, many species descriptions, most of them new, but absolutely no discussion or description of the locality. [This would be pretty much unacceptable today.] The very brief introduction to the paper reads “The collections upon which this article is based were made in Venezuela for an American company. Only descriptions of species with general localities and general ages can be given at present, but later, when the interests of the company permit, we hope to publish definite localities and stratigraphic ranges for the species.” These were collections made for an oil company. As was mentioned last week, oil companies once employed paleontologists and relied upon fossils to identify likely places to drill for oil. Thus their locations were somewhat secretive in some cases, which seemed to be the case here. I do not know whether more precise localities were ever published; the specimen label here still is very imprecise: Oligocene-Miocene, locality no. 6, District of Miranda, State of Zulia, Venezuela.

The specimen: This is the holotype* specimen of Arca mirandana, and is 25 millimeters (approximately 1 inch) long. There are about 250 living species of the family Arcidae worldwide today, distributed mainly in intertidal or shallow waters. They attach to rocks using strong, elastic byssal threads secreted by the foot. Some species are exploited for human food in Asia, and have been raised in aquaculture in China and Japan since the seventeenth century.

The collection: PRI is now curating more of the Hodson Collection (only the type specimens had been cataloged previously), which includes bulk lots from approximately 2,000 localities plus the original catalogs (which presumably do contain more precise locality information). Much of this collection is Pliocene to Recent mollusks and has been described by our collections staff as a “goldmine.” Curation of the Hodson Collection is supported by a National Science Foundation grant that also allowed us to install compactor shelving for our fossil mollusk collection. Fossil mollusks of Cenozoic age are one of the great strengths of the PRI Research Collections.

*See Fossil of the Week 8/19/09 - Cerithium gainesensis for a definition of "holotype."

Text by Paula Mikkelsen

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Night that the Lights Went Out...

...At the Museum of the Earth in celebration of Earth Hour 2010!

Friday, March 5, 2010

What Goes Up Must Come Down...This Weekend at the Museum of the Earth!

Join us at noon on Saturday, March 6 for a lecture entitled "The Missing Terrestrial Carbon Sink: Half of what goes up comes down, but where?" with R. Quinn Thomas, M.S., Ph.D. Candidate, Cornell University, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Only about half of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions remain in the atmosphere and alter the climate. Where does the other half go? Why? Where will it go in the future? This lecture will explore the mystery of the “missing” carbon sink.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fossil of the Week

3/3/10 – Venezuelan Foram

Foraminiferans, or “forams” are protists, in other words, single-celled organisms. They have a calcium carbonate "test" or shell, which is what this fossil is, from the Eocene of Venezuela. Forams are neither animals or plants - they are classified in the Kingdom Rhizaria. Most are marine benthic organisms, which means simply that they live in the sediment at the bottom of the sea. Forams date back to the Cambrian Period, and have played very important roles in paleontology. Due to their abundance and readily fossilized tests, they can be "index fossils" for specific time intervals in the geologic time scale. More accurately, they are "index assemblages" - in other words, a certain combination of foram species tells you that you're at a certain level in geologic time. They have also been used to reconstruct past climates by examining oxygen isotopes, and to reconstruct past ocean currents through the geographic patterns in the fossil records of planktonic forams. The oil industry once relied heavily on forams and other microfossils to find potential oil deposits.

This species: This foraminiferan is Cisseis asterisca venezuelana, a new subspecies described by Helen Hodson. The photograph really doesn’t do the species justice – that from the original description is also included here, and shows the lovely granular surface. This is the holotype* (PRI catalog number 21806), described in Bulletins of American Paleontology no. 47, "Foraminifera from Venezuela and Trinidad,” published in December 1926. Today, subspecies are usually regional forms of a species, which from a biological viewpoint, have evolved their unique characteristics as a result of geographical distribution or isolation. Therefore the geographic range of subspecies are separate. This specimen, like all forams, is very small – the original description reads 5.2 millimeters in greatest dimension. However, it was named as a new subspecies on the basis that it was LARGER than the “nominal subspecies,” Cisseis asterisca, named from Trinidad by Guppy in 1866. [This is also very large by modern standards – most living forams are only approximately 1 millimeter in diameter.] The problem is, C. asterisca also occurs in Venezuela, so by modern biological standards, Hodson’s subspecies venezuelana should be considered a “form” rather than a subspecies. I do not know whether paleontologists have made this change.

For description of another foram, see Fossil of the Week 12/9/09 - Buccella sp.

*See Fossil of the Week 8/19/09 - Cerithium gainesensis for a definition of "holotype."

Text by Paula Mikkelsen

Then & Now

For over a year, PRI's Artist-in-Residence John Gurche worked in his studio in the lobby of the Museum of the Earth creating sculptures that would one day end up at the Smithsonian Instiutions National Museum of Natural History’s David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins.

The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins does not open until March 17, but here's a sneak peek!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


The Earth is alive! If you ever had any doubt, the recent bout of massive earthquakes must have changed your mind. While Haiti is still recovering from the 7.0 (on the Richter Scale) quake that left over 200,000 dead and countless homes damaged in January, Chile is reeling from a 8.8 (on the Richter Scale) quake that struck Saturday. The Chile earthquake was over 500 times more powerful than the one that hit Haiti, and yet the damage, though significant, is much less. The reasons for this are both geologic and social. The Haiti quake was relatively shallow with the epicenter located right near the major city of Port-au-Prince. Fortunately for Chile, the quake was much deeper (~21miles below ground) and 70 miles offshore, allowing more of the energy to dissipate before reaching the city of Concepcion. Socially, Chile is well prepared for massive quakes. In 1960 Chile experienced the largest earthquake in recorded history (magnitude 9.5). Even 50 years later this earthquake was fresh in peoples minds and the public knew what safety measures to take. Structurally, after the 1960 quake buildings were reinforced and engineered to withstand the next major quake. And for the most part, they did. Although 500,000 homes have been reported damaged and 2 million people affected, it is much less devastating then it could have been if Chile wasn't as prepared as they were.

-Sara Auer, Volcanologist and PRI's Geoscience Education Resource Developer

Monday, March 1, 2010

Earth Hour 2010

At 8.30pm (local time) on Saturday 27 March, the greatest show on Earth for action on climate change will take place in homes, office buildings, town halls and public places around the globe as lights go out for Earth Hour 2010.

With 807 cities, towns and municipalities and 82 countries across every continent already signed up, Earth Hour 2010 is set to show the world that a resolution to the threat of global warming is possible through collective action.

Museum of the Earth is excited to once again take part in this international initiative. It's not just museums, countries, or municipalities that are taking part, but it's for everyone! Will you join us in turning off your lights and powering down your electronics for one hour?

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