Eye of the Field-Worker

Happy 2019, Dear Readers!

This was not a post that I was expecting to write. Honestly, who really wants to hear the gory details regarding eye surgery. Well, apparently my Twitterverse is as morbidly curious as I am about such details.

For good reason. In my personal experience, having to wear prescription glasses while doing field work is a huge pain in the sclera: sometimes literally in the event that I got something in my eye. As an aside, I used to have a panic-like reaction to people’s fingers near my eye. I could barely touch my own eye when trying to remove the inevitable cat hair, but someone else’s fingers TOUCHING MY EYE?!?! My poor husband, colleague, and fieldwork partner remembers an incident that involved trying to get a piece of dried leaf out of my eye on a field survey. Despite the seeming protection of my glasses, a bit of crumbled leaf got caught in my eye as I scrambled under a dead fallen tree. Rinsing my eye didn’t dislodge the offending leaf crumble, so he tried to physically remove it. I knew exactly what was happening. He told me everything he was going to do before doing it, but that didn’t stop the illogical panic reaction. I still went into panic mode.

You can already guess that contact lenses were not a comfortable option for me. I wore glasses for the majority of my fieldwork days, with regular summer fieldwork starting in 2003. For a decade I did surveys and excavations while wearing prescription glasses.

The plus side of wearing glasses in the field is that they do act as a bit of an eye shield, although they are NO substitute for actual safety glasses. They acted as a barrier to twigs and tree branches while hiking. There were downsides, however.  One, it was a pain in the pupil to find safety glasses that would fit over my glasses and not fog up while providing full coverage. I ended up having to wear most safety glasses without my prescription glasses to prevent fogging. Two, prescription glasses are expensive, and my lenses would be a scratched pitted mess after every field season, requiring that I drop at least $300-$400 every year on a new pair. I tried having a pair of prescription glasses that I only wore during fieldwork, but they would become un-useable after two seasons. That would leave me the choice of either using my “good” pair of glasses (condemning them to inevitable damage) or stumbling around in a fog of blurry objects.

The ongoing expense of prescription glasses is what helped me make the decision to stare down my fear of people playing with my eyeballs and undergo corrective laser surgery. Well, not just the expense, but this next reason is directly related to the cost of glasses. I was trying to “tough out” my damaged glasses by wearing them for longer than I should. I gave myself eyestrain trying to look through and around the scratches on the lenses. One of my eyes started to overcompensate by focusing on the wrong area when I looked at objects in the distance. My reasoning (at the time): I was simply feeling too insecure financially (with the ever-likely threat of our project losing its funding and becoming unemployed) to drop a few hundred dollars on glasses every year or two.

The conclusion I eventually came to was this: yes, laser eye surgery is an initially expensive procedure, but no matter what happened to me employment-wise I would not have to worry about glasses again for a long time.

In 2012 I started doing my homework.

LASIK versus Photoreactive Keratectomy (PRK)

LASIK – The most common type of corrective laser eye surgery (when I was looking) was LASIK surgery. In this procedure, the laser cuts a little flap in the outer layers of the corneal tissue. Once the little flap is cut, the surgeon lifts up the flap and the laser-ing of the cornea happens underneath. Once the reshaping is done, the flap is put back in place. The flap ends up acting like a bandage for the area, and no stitches or additional coverings are needed. Patients usually heal within 12 – 48 hours, and the whole procedure takes about 15 minutes to complete.

I initially liked the idea of LASIK because of the short healing time. However, during my reading, I came across some cases where the healed edges of the corneal flap can potentially “pop” back up, especially if you take a whack to the head. At the time I was in karate – whacks to the head happen by accident, but they do happen. Also, if I was in a serious accident during fieldwork, the absolute last thing I would want to deal with would be parts of my eye flapping around.

Photoreactive keratectomy (PRK) – I choose photoreactive keratectomy or PRK surgery. There are two tissue layers of the cornea that are involved in the surgery. The epithelial layer is the one that is removed by an instrument (more on this part later). This epithelial layer is the one that regenerates and heals. The underlying layer called the stroma doesn’t regenerate, so this is the layer that gets reshaped by the laser.

After the PRK surgery is complete, your stroma is basically open to the elements like a scrape or a cut, so you need a soft contact lens bandage to cover the altered area while the epithelium layers heal over. This contact lens bandage is left in place for a few days while healing occurs. The recovery process for PRK is apparently a bit more uncomfortable than for LASIK (more on this later).

My Experience with PRK Surgery

Those are the basics of the surgery. Now I’ll tell you about what I remember of the process. We stayed at my sister-in-law’s Julie’s place for the duration of my procedure and the recovery. She made a special treat for us in honor of my surgery.

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The image is a little fuzzy, but these are sugar cookies decorated to look like infected eyes made by my sister-in-law Julie They were delicious!

Pre-Screening and Examination – The process takes two days, even though the surgery itself is completed in 15 minutes or less. Day 1 is set aside so that the technicians can perform an eye exam prior to the surgery. I filled out a complete medical history and went through a series of very thorough vision tests. This was to establish what needed correcting for my vision. The examination took most of the morning. One of the things they test is your corneal thickness: if your corneas are too thin, there’s not enough cornea to remove for the reshaping. There are other reasons that you may not be a good candidate for corrective laser eye surgery: your regular optometrist will answer your questions on this. My optometrist had a corneal thickness measuring device, so even before researching my surgery options, he was able to tell me that I might be a good candidate.

Usually, the technicians give the OK to officially book you into an official surgery slot that week right after the examination. However, during my examination, the technicians discovered that my eyes weren’t focusing the way they should be: one eye was skewing a little to one side. In my opinion, I blame this on my trying to see through damaged glasses for three years. The technicians said that they had to get the surgeon to look over the test results and that they would get back to me that afternoon with the decision.

That afternoon Rich and I met up with our advisor (we were both still in graduate students at the time) to catch up. I honestly can’t remember what we talked about. I was angry at myself for mucking up my eyes and ruining my chances at receiving this surgery just because I didn’t want to drop money on new glasses when I needed them. I must have obsessively checked my phone every two minutes. This went on for about two hours, and then at around 2:30 pm I received the call: I was cleared to have my surgery that week.

With the surgery, you can decide to have one eye done at a time (two separate surgeries) or to have both eyes operated on at once. I felt as though I only had enough nerve to go through this process once, so I opted to get both eyes done during the same surgery.

Surgery Day – I remember this being an all-afternoon event. We were at the clinic at around 2:00 pm. I was both nervous and excited: nervous because PEOPLE WERE GOING TO TOUCH MY EYEBALLS, and excited because this procedure would allow me to be glasses-free. Rich and Julie came with me for moral support. Before the surgery, there were a few more forms to fill out (I filled out a lot of forms during this process). We saw a lot of people coming and going, both patients and their support systems. The clinic began to empty. My surgery was scheduled as one of the last ones for that day.

About 20 minutes before my surgery, a technician came out to meet me and my team. I was given a small dose of an anti-anxiety drug: apparently, it’s normal for people to be nervous before this surgery. The technician then asked Rich and Julie if they wanted to wait in the waiting room, or if they wanted to sit in the observation room and watch the surgery on a monitor.

My family is the best, and by the best I mean their eyes lit up at the chance to witness this eyeball-themed spectacle. There was a resounding yes to the offer to watch my surgery. Both Rich and Julie said that they were going to give my surgery a proper Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

normal view
Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode of “This Island Earth.”

Movies are a big part of our family, and Rich, Julie and I are huge MST3K fans. Just knowing that they were going to be there, riffing every gory detail of my surgery, was supremely comforting for me. That’s love.

At this point, I was led into the pre-surgery room. I changed into a hospital gown and waited for the surgeon to arrive. When the surgeon arrived he examined my eyes, and then took a felt-tipped pen and drew on my eyeballs. Yes, you read that correctly. I didn’t feel any of this thanks to the anesthetic drops, but seeing the felt pen come towards my eye was a bit disconcerting. We made small talk whilst he drew guidelines on my eyeballs, and then I was ready for the surgery.

I was led to a comfy reclining chair in the surgery room. However, above the chair was a huge apparatus. I’ll admit: my brain did briefly jump to those alien abduction shows. I laid back in the chair. The surgeon asked if I had anyone here with me. I said “Oh yes! My husband and sister-in-law are in the observation room. They’re going to MST3K my surgery!” I think I confused the poor man.

Then came the eye stabilization equipment. There are several videos on the clinic’s website that show you, step-by-step, the procedures and describe every detail so that there are no surprises. However, personally experiencing this equipment is different than watching the procedure as a third-party. An eye speculum was applied to the first eye: it’s a metal ring clamp that holds your eyelids open so you can’t blink. It also holds your eyeball in place. Next, a small ring was placed over the cornea. The ring was there to act as a cup to hold a solution that was then squirted on to my eye. This solution was applied to soften the epithelial layers. At this point, I have to take Rich’s word for what happened because everything went blurry. I didn’t see any scary equipment coming to touch my eyes (thus sparing me potential nightmare fuel).

Why did this area need to be softened? Here comes the fun part (and the part were Rich and Julie’s riffing apparently kicked into high gear). The now softened epithelial layers are scraped off with what looks like a tiny metal hockey stick. Once my epithelial eye gloop was scraped away, it was time for the laser to reshape my stroma. Again, all I saw were blurry movements, and I didn’t feel anything.

I think I asked, “Aren’t you going to strap down my head so that I don’t move and mess up the surgery?” The surgeon replied that there was no need to worry about that. Heck yeah, I was worried about that! I wanted my head strapped down using medieval-looking devices so that there was no chance of me flinching. But no, my head was free and mobile.

The laser began to snap and crackle. I felt my nerves jumping at every snap. The surgeon must have seen the flinching because he, very gently, placed a couple of fingers on my forehead. THAT’S IT? I thought, That’s how my head is going to be restrained? It seemed to do the trick despite my incredulity. While I found the sound unnerving, the smell was fascinating. Oh yes, there was a smell. It smelled a bit like burning hair.

Once the surgery was complete and my contact lens bandages were in place (my first time wearing contacts) the technician said that I could take however much time I needed to sit up and move around. I felt fine, but I guess people can be a bit shaky after the surgery. I waited about a minute before getting out of the chair. I changed and met up with Rich and Julie in the post-operating/waiting area. A technician followed along with me to make sure I didn’t have the post-operation shakes and collapse (I suppose), and I waited in the recovery area while the prescriptions for my eye drops and pain medication were completed.

I could technically see at this point, although things were a bit fuzzy and bright lights were uncomfortable. I waited for my prescriptions and drank orange juice while Rich and Julie regaled me with Tales of The Gloopy Eye Scraping. I filled my prescriptions and we were out of the clinic by 4:30 pm.

Post-Surgery Care – I had three prescriptions for my post-operative care. One was the pain medication. Another was a bottle of steroid eye drops that I had to apply a few times a day. Another was a bottle of numbing eye drops that I could apply as needed (up to a few times a day). I was also sent home with breathable eye shields. I was instructed to tape these over my eyes at night for at least a week so that I didn’t scratch or rub my eyes in my sleep. I looked (and felt) like a giant insect. I was told to avoid screen time (computer, TV, smartphone, etc) and reading for at least two weeks, and to limit screen time for another two weeks after that.

I slept a great deal during the day for the next two days. My eyes were closed for the most part anyway, and the pain medication made me drowsy. While I was drifting in and out of sleep I listened to audiobooks. Julie found an awesome soft headband with built-in headphones that I could wear as an eyemask (over my buggy eye shields) while I was dozing. After the third day, I didn’t feel as though I needed the pain medication: the prescribed schedule of numbing drops seemed to do the job. I wore sunglasses when we would head out during the day.

On the third or fourth day Rich, Julie and I went out for dinner. We were chatting and laughing, when OH MY OWLS THERE WAS SOMETHING IN MY EYE. It was quite uncomfortable. I figured that something this uncomfortable would have to be visible, so I excused myself to the washroom and checked my eye. I saw absolutely nothing in my eye, other than the thin line of the contact lens edge. The initial discomfort was gone, so I really didn’t think much of it. I was sure that my blinking had worked out whatever it was. I felt fine…until my progress check-up.

The Post-Surgery Check-Up – I had my five-day progress checkup at the clinic. The technician examined my eye.

“Hmm,” she said, “There appears to be something behind your contact lens.” She brought out her large magnifying ring light. “Oh dear! There’s a hair caught behind your lens!”

“Oh, THAT’S what that was!” I exclaim.

“This must have been so painful! You didn’t go to the emergency room?”

Honestly, I was a bit baffled. “It really wasn’t that bad after a few minutes.” I had spent a lifetime fishing cat hair out of my eyes, so this seemed like no big deal to me. I was about to change my mind.

“I’ll remove your contact lens and use these nasty pokey tweezer-looking things (that’s not its technical name, but that’s how I remember the tool) and lift off the hair.”

I was more nervous here than I was throughout the entire surgery. Some numbing drops were applied, but it wasn’t the surgery-level anesthetic. My flailing and flinching started when the lens was lifted off. I don’t think that I impressed anyone with my stoicism at that moment. It took the technician several tries to remove the hair. I’m sure that my fingers left permanent divots in the armrests.

The epithelial layers of my cornea had started to heal around the cat hair and was in danger of leaving a permanent hair-shaped scar across my surgery area. I was instructed to stay on the steroid eyedrops for an additional few days to completely heal the hair-affected area. They changed my contact lens bandages and scheduled my next check-up.

I was given the all-clear on my second follow-up to have my one-month checkup by my local optometrist. When you leave the clinic after receiving corrective eye surgery, your driver’s license will still say that you need prescription glasses for driving. You are given a card by the clinic that provides an update to show police (until you get your license renewed) and to present when you get your license renewed.

Rich drove the entire 8-hour trip (I did most of the driving on the way out to the clinic) back to our home base. I settled in for a two-week period of being at home…with limited screen time and limited reading. This was difficult: my downtime consists of reading, watching movies, and knitting. I passed the time by making cheese (wearing a huge pair of safety glasses just in case I splashed my eyes) and listening to Planet Earth.

My one-month checkup was good. My eyes were healing well. There was still a faint hint of the cat hair scar, so my optometrist wanted me to stay on the steroid drops for an additional week as a precaution. Otherwise, my vision was a little better than 20/20.

Was It Worth It? – It has been six years since I had corrective laser surgery, and all I can say is HECK YES. I should have done this years ago, but realistically I wasn’t in a position until 2013 to finance such a surgery.

I have noticed some minor side effects. My eyes dry out more easily than they did before the surgery. I make sure to carry a small bottle of regular eye drops for long driving trips. I also have a little trouble focusing when I am driving in twilight conditions: oncoming traffic lights have large light halos. This one may not be related at all to the surgery, but I also have to be careful to not spend too much time staring at my phone screen (my computer and tablet are fine) as it gives me eyestrain. Other than that, I have not experienced any negative side effects.

I do have to be more careful while I am hiking, as I no longer have my glasses acting as an ersatz eye shield. In 2014 I was doing a field survey in a remote mountain creek canyon. The terrain was full of boulders and twiggy understory growth. I grabbed a dry branch to push it aside, and then WHACK! a bunch of dried bark flew off of the branch and hit me in the face. My eyes were open, so the bark also hit me in the eye. I immediately let Rich know so that he could pull the bark out of my eye. He looked and looked…but there was no bark in my eye. I rinsed my eye several times, but could still feel bark in my eye. It was uncomfortable, but it wasn’t getting in the way of doing the survey.

Once we got back to the vehicle, my eye was still bothering me. We had a second leg of the survey to explore, but the drive would take me past the house, so I asked to be dropped off so that I could examine my eye in a controlled setting (my bathroom). I STILL couldn’t see any bark in my eye, so when Rich returned I requested a drive to the emergency room.

The doctor put a temporary dye in my eye, and Rich could immediately see the scrape that the bark had made on my cornea. It took about a week to recover from the scrape, and I needed to be on antibiotic and steroid eye drops during the healing process. I also had to wear either an eye patch or an eye shield over an absorbent gauze pad. I opted for the eyepatch this time.eye patch

The moral of this story is to PROTECT YOUR EYES. It might feel goofy hiking with safety glasses, but if you are going to be plunging headfirst into dense undergrowth it’s a decent safety precaution (if it’s not already required by your institution.)

These, of course, are my personal experiences with corrective laser eye surgery, and your mileage may vary. I’m glad that I had the procedure and feel it has improved my quality of life, especially with fieldwork. If you’re considering a similar procedure for similar reasons, I hope that this post will provide a bit of information as you make that decision.

Field Work Is Hard Work

Note: I originally had these tweets curated on Storify.

One of the most high-profile parts of paleontology is the field work. I would bet my last bag of Earl Grey Special (note: must order more tea) that when one thinks of paleontology, the word conjures images of rocky badlands terrain and a small group of people wearing big hats and vests and bandannas crouched in a sun-beaten rocky quarry, dusting off bones that haven’t seen the light of day in 74 million years. It’s like a scientifically-endorsed treasure hunt, and people want to be of that story.

With the excitement that fieldwork invokes comes ill-informed opinions. If I had a dollar for every time I have heard this “great idea,” the research program could operate for years off of the interest alone.

The perception of the general public on what paleontology fieldwork (or any fieldwork) actually entails is a media illusion, I’m afraid. You aren’t shown the ACTUAL hard work (unless it’s “heroic”) that goes into a field expedition.

Some field sites are actually amenable to paying customers who want to have an experience vacation. There are two key features of these sites: accessibility and emergency coverage (cell phone coverage, within a short driving distance of emergency medical facilities, ability to get vehicles in and out of the site reliably). When I ask the tourism/marketing people who come to me with this Great Idea (TM) whether they are going to pay to have a helicopter on standby for emergency evacuations or to cover the cost of a satellite phone, I get dirty looks and hear the sound of crickets.

crickets

However, the fieldwork that my colleague and I do is NOT amenable to adventure tourism for a variety of logistical, financial, and practical reasons.

How hard? The rock at our Late Cretaceous (Turonian) site is so hard that we actually broke our traditional excavation tools trying to work it. All of the excavating at that site has to be done with pneumatic tools, which bring with them their own safety risks.

Even our “classic” sites, like the B.C. hadrosaur (a.k.a. “duck-billed dinosaur” site, although calling hadrosaurs duck-billed dinosaurs is actually inaccurate!) have their own set of not-visitor-friendly frustrations.

So why does this make our kind of paleontology a bad fit for adventure/experiential tourism?

That’s when we actually have a site to excavate. The bulk of our fieldwork time is spent looking for these sites (a.k.a. paleontology field surveys). Paleontology field surveys are no walk in the park of a pleasant stroll down a groomed forest path.

I have a pair of hiking boots that I specifically use for these types of surveys. They’re called Bog Boots because of the countless beaver-dammed areas we’ve had to slop through. That smell never leaves your boots, BTW.

Oh, we also cannot control the wildlife. We cannot guarantee we will not encounter cranky wildlife. We can’t guarantee that someone will see wildlife. That’s a big difference between an adventure/experiential tourist and a fieldworker: a tourist may want to have a wildlife encounter they can photograph and tell stories about. If we encounter a bear in the field, that means we weren’t loud enough to warn the bear we were coming. [One day I’ll tell you about the person who lives in this region who complained that their visiting family didn’t see wildlife on the highway drive and that something should be done to guarantee highway sightings. Protip: you really don’t want to see moose on the highway.]

Since our field surveys are not pleasure hikes, there isn’t a lot of time for dawdling (a term used by my Granny and great-aunt Molly).

We have done hundreds of hours of field surveying that has not immediately resulted in a fossil find. That’s pretty standard for our kind of mountainous inaccessible terrain.

We don’t get disheartened because we expect to put in this kind of effort for no promise of “reward.” However, there is an expectation from a paying tourist to be rewarded for spending their money.

There are also real dangers associated with fieldwork. This is a danger that myself and my colleague knowingly and willingly accept…for ourselves. You simply cannot convey the risks and hazards of being in the wilderness without the promise of immediate assistance to someone who has not experienced that level of isolation.

An example: lightning in the alpine.

This is all to say that the paleontology fieldwork that people see on TV is HEAVILY edited. It’s the “Good Parts” version of fieldwork. Like reading the “good parts” version of the Princess Bride. All of the day-to-day realities of “dinosaur hunting” are removed to make the story “good.”

Want to know a secret (that is totally not a secret to anyone who does fieldwork)? If you participate in a “pay-to-dig” program, all of the hard parts have been pre-edited for you. It’s a programmed experience. For example, there were summer students, graduate students, and researchers who removed the overburden (the meters of rock that cover a dinosaur skeleton) before the paying participants arrived to find the bones.

Summers of hard physical work will take their toll on your body. I am a walking accumulation of fieldwork-related injuries.

That’s without me taking unnecessary risks. I can’t do the weekend warrior nonsense because I can’t afford to. My physical health is a big part of my livelihood. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many weekend volunteers take risks because, hey, they’re only out there for a few days. They get cranky when I say NO. They don’t understand that their safety in my hands, and if they are injured that is on my head, ethically, morally, and legally. But a paying person is going to want some “adventure.” If we don’t “provide” adventure they try to make their own by taking risks.

This brings us to an important but little-discussed part of managing a fieldwork team: Field Administration.

Think about a new person starting off in your company. While you are training, you are not 100% doing your own primary work. Part of your job becomes doing your work and reviewing the trainee’s work to provide feedback. We have a strict one volunteer per trained staff policy for digs. Overseeing one person means that I can catch whoopsies before they happen. Usually, the Curators end up supervising both volunteers and trainees.

And mistakes WILL happen. That’s part of learning. The most common mistakes for new volunteers/staff are digging too fast or too hard (quarry rock requires a certain level of patience and experience) and not keeping on top of self-care. This is why we screen volunteers for ATTITUDE over previous skills. Skills can be learned, but you can’t untrain a bad ‘tude in one field season. Unfortunately, if you accept paying people you cannot screen for attitude. You are under an obligation to take their personality along with their money.

Here’s a list of bad field-itudes that I’ve encountered over the years:

I’ve seen the above manifest in a few ways, including older people not respecting the expertise of younger supervisors, and gendered-biases of who is “in charge” on a field-based project.

Oh yes: sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in fieldwork.

Other Bad ‘Tude Bears issues we’ve had to face are people who refuse to partake in ANY self-care (even when reminded,) people who are negligent about the safety of others, and what I call the Dashed Expectations Complaining. Yes, this is hard work. No, we can’t do something “more fun” because we only have three weeks to do this dig. Bad attitudes can be more infectious than good attitudes, and someone with a realistic outlook on fieldwork is going to feel more pressure to be hap-hap-HAPPY to counteract a Bad ‘Tude Bear. That can be emotionally draining. Whether you’re in an office or under an excavation tarp, you can’t escape office personnel issues.

Pro-tip: our best field technicians came to us 100% untrained but with a positive can-do, ready to learn attitude. Now they are skilled and still have a great outlook on fieldwork. I will choose attitude over skill every darn time.

When a scientist is out in the field doing fieldwork, they are there to do a very specific job in a specified timeframe. They are not there to act as a tour guide. There are also ecological and cultural aspects to the “turn every dig into a business opportunity” mentality.

A big one is regarding whose land you are operating on. If you’re in North America, you are doing your research on lands that are indigenous territories. If you want to find out whose lands you are working on, check out this link: https://native-land.ca/ You should consult with the traditional landowners before embarking on your work. If there is the desire to open up an area for tourism reasons, I feel that decision should be made by the traditional landowners.

If you respect the work that field scientists do, you will ask for their honest opinion regarding the different levels of access they feel they can accommodate in terms of experiential tourism. This includes education-based programming: if it’s too risky to bring adults to an area, it is most certainly too dangerous for children to be present. Your local scientist likely has ideas of areas that are amenable to this kind of development but remember: the priority for these sites is the science, and they will not hesitate to tell you no if the sites are too sensitive for this type of activity. These sites still need to be properly surveyed to ensure there won’t be any detrimental impacts to the heritage, natural history, or cultural stewardship of the area.

A site is not important just because you think that you can make money off of it or “promote” an area, region, or town. These sites record our common heritage, the story of what the area was and how we fit into that complex story. If we make a bad call and a site is damaged, we’re never going to get another chance to correct that mistake. That chapter of the story is lost forever. Preserving that story is our foremost priority, and I choose to err on the side of what’s best for the heritage.

Selling Fossils: Heritage for the Elite

Another day, another set of dinosaur skeletons going to auction.

There are at least three skeletons of charismatic dinosaurs being offered for auction by the company Artcurial: the link to the pdf of the fancy-pants advertisement brochure is here. There are many MANY things wrong with the information in the brochure, which calls into question whether actual paleontologists were involved with this process (as the brochure claims.)

The Red Flags of the Brochure.

There are three major red flags that make me doubt the statement that a paleontologist was involved in this process. Here are the flags with a brief explanation.

  1. The sentence “Allosaurus, a carnivore of the Tyrannosaurus family.” – Hoo boy, this one is a cornucopia of wrongness. Yes, the genus Allosaurus was carnivorous. However, it is NOT in the same family group as tyrannosaurs. A paleontologist would know that the family that contains all of the species of tyrannosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex is called Tyrannosauridae. Allosaurus belongs to the family group called Allosauridae. The term “family” has an exact meaning for paleontologists, biologists, etc. A family group is a formal classification in the Taxonomy Hierarchy. Here is the very basic list of the groupings, from broad (animal) to really specific (Tyrannosaurus rex as an example of a species.)
  • Kingdom
  • Phylum
  • Class
  • Order
  • Family
  • Genus
  • Species

Each level is like an exclusive club: in order to belong to the family Tyrannosauridae, you must possess a group of features that ONLY belong to members of Team Tyrannosauridae, like having fused nasal bones. If you’re Allosaurus, you have your own features that allow you to join Team Allosauridae, like having crests on the nose bones (nasals). So Allosaurus fragilis could never be in the same family as Tyrannosaurus rex because they each have different looking bones, so they belong to their own exclusive clubs. These are long-standing biology rules. Reading the quoted sentence would may any paleontologist’s eyes bleed.

2. The sentence “These two skeletons from the Jurassic era (154 – 148 million years BC)” – In all of my years as a paleontologist, I don’t think I’ve seen geologic times described in “BC” terms. We usually say “154 – 148 million years ago/old.” Also, the Jurassic is a Period, not an Era. This is not something a paleontologist is going to go “meh, good enough” about. Just like the term Family means something very exact in naming critters, the same goes for the Geologic Time Scale. The Mesozoic Era contains the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods. There simply isn’t a Jurassic era. Not only did a paleontologist not write this brochure before its release, but I would also bet that not one paleontologist was seriously involved in proof-reading or fact-checking this brochure.

3. Inconsistent use of binomial (two-part) names of dinosaurs – There are pretty strict rules regarding how scientific names of plants and animals are written. It’s like washing your hands after using the washroom or brushing your teeth before bed: you learn these rules early through repetition and constant reminder and then they become automatic. You learn early in biology, zoology, and geology classes that binomial names follow an exact format. Let’s use Tyrannosaurus rex as an example.

Tyrannosaurus is the genus name. It is always presented in italics. It is always capitalized. A genus can contain several species, meaning that if you say something about Tyrannosaurus, you are talking about all of the species in that genus club.

rex is the species name. A species is a group that has features that you can only see in animals that belong to that group. The species name is always presented in italics. It is always in lowercase letters, and it is accompanied by the genus name. Sometimes the genus name is shortened to an abbreviation, like in T. rex.

The rather sloppy use of genus and species names in this brochure is definitely a sign that a paleontologist’s eyeballs did not glance upon that page. It’s not even a consistent misuse of the names.

The Real Issue Is One of Ethics and Underfunded Museums

However, the biggest issues regarding the sale of fossils of charismatic megafauna are those of ethics and personal responsibilities of both the sellers and the buyers.

The brochure advertises the fossils’ price range at between 500,000 – 800,000 euros…each. Now, I may only be a curator as a small research center, but I do know how to do a budget AND use a currency conversion tool.  At the time of writing this post, 800,000 euros is roughly $1.2 million dollars (CAD.)

One of the responses people like me (paleontologist on the academic end of things who thinks there is ample evidence that the commercial fossil trade as it operates now needs a large-scale revamp to address several ethical and heritage conservation concerns) hear when we say “Can we rethink this whole selling of our irreplaceable heritage?” is that, if we’re so darned worried about science losing specimens like this, our museums should simply buy the specimens. Problem solved right?

Not how this works

I don’t know if the people who say this are aware, but it actually costs real money to operate a museum. You need to pay for the utilities (heat, water, electrical, sewage, etc.) You need to pay your staff. You need to pay your contracted staff, like sanitation workers. The different departments (displays, gift shop, research, collections) need an operating budget.

Let us hypothetically explore the possibility of a small museum (it’s what I know, I can’t speak for large institutions) purchasing one of these specimens. My collections department, Population of One (that’s me) does not have $1.2 million just lying around in discretionary funds. I am also not going to justify lobbying and fundraising to purchase one specimen when there are a myriad of pressing issues that the collections face, such as upgrading the environmental monitoring, installing heavy-duty shelving, upgrading our internet services for a digital specimen server, and getting a backup generator for when (not if, when) the power goes out in the dead of winter. Want a collections headache? Think about what would happen if your pipes froze and burst. Think about where all that water runs. Now think about how most collections are in the lower levels of buildings.

Let us assume that someone knocks on my collections room door and I emerge, Morlock-like from the shadows, to find out this someone will donate $1.2 million so that we could bid on the specimen. First I would show them the Priorities List. Second, I would have to explain that they might be throwing their money away. According to the Member Bylaw on Ethics Statement of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology,

“The barter, sale or purchase of scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is not condoned, unless it brings them into, or keeps them within, a public trust. Any other trade or commerce in scientifically significant vertebrate fossils is inconsistent with the foregoing, in that it deprives both the public and professionals of important specimens, which are part of our natural heritage.”

Yes, purchase of the skeleton(s) by a museum or academic institution would bring them into the public trust. However, the value of specimens doesn’t just lay in their dry ol’ bones. The value is the information that is collected with the specimen. It takes a while for a science-based dig to dig up skeletons and bonebeds because of all of the nitpicky data that needs to be collected. Personally, I LOVE excavation quarry mapping. I love the painstaking attention that must be paid to the accurate drawing, measuring the compass direction of the bones, measuring how much they are tilted in the rock, and adding all of the rock-features that tell us about the environment that buried the bones. We don’t just map out the big showy pretty bones. We map out ALL of the bones and teeth that we uncover, including scrappy bone fragments. I love finding the invertebrate and plant fossils that are preserved with the skeleton. All of this is tells the story of the final days of the animal’s carcass, the story of its journey from dead body to fossil. This particular part of science is called taphonomy.

We have no idea if this taphonomy data will (if any were collected) come with the specimen. It is up to the collectors to determine what value they place on this data. Every time skeletons like these are collected without their associated taphonomy information, the skeletons are reduced to the status of a Thanksgiving table centerpiece: it looks pretty but doesn’t contain any meat.

Personally, I would tell the person to save their money. Or, if they really want to be associated with a spectacular find, I would try to convince them that a bigger bang for their buck is in starting legacy funds for field research programs that will discover new and exciting specimens. I say will because it will inevitably happen. The science of paleontology is still rapidly advancing, and there are still so many exciting questions that need not-yet-discovered specimens to answer. Were I to win the Lotto Max or some such lottery, I wouldn’t be buying specimens. I would be handing bags o’ money to curators and saying “You do you” and sit back and watch the magic happen. New discoveries would be made because these curators would finally have the resources to do their dream projects. I don’t know one curator/researcher who doesn’t have “If Money Were No Obstacle” project list. I would also be handing bags o’ money to collections facilities at small institutions.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology recently came out with a letter calling for the cancel of the sale of these specimens. You can see the text of the letter attached to their tweet:

The letter succinctly addresses the ethical and legal concerns regarding the sale. As I’ve mentioned before, just because you see a fossil for sale doesn’t mean it was collected or exported legally. There are many cases of false information being used on import/export forms to get fossils in and out of countries, like exporting fossils as “rock art,” for example. Don’t be accidentally duped into participating in an illegal activity.

What we see with these sales is not a love of heritage and a desire to preserve and share our planet’s heritage with the world. We see heritage being treated like a luxury item that only the privileged few can ever hope to afford. These auctions treat our common heritage like a toy to covet, not as an opportunity to learn more about our planet and how we as a species fit into this amazingly complex picture. The buying and selling of charismatic fossils such as this is the world of the elite. If the fossils are purchased by an individual or a private company, they get to decide exactly who does and doesn’t see the fossils. They control the access. Money, in this case, is most certainly power.

I don’t know if I’ll see this trend of selling heritage to the highest bidder go extinct in my lifetime. I wish the same energy and resources that are put into extracting, selling, and buying heritage would be channeled to the public institutions that are trying their darndest to preserve this heritage for future generations on a frayed shoestring of a budget. I don’t do what I do for me. I do it for the person who comes after me 100 years from now and wants to unlock answers to our planet’s mysteries by using our collections. I hope they understand that I did the best that I could with what I had to work with.

 

It’s OK To Like The Mandarin Duck!

(…But Do It Responsibly!)

Hello Dear Readers!

The past few months have been exciting from a birding-eye-view, especially for Stanley Park in Vancouver, Burnaby, and Central Park, New York City. What do these two areas have in common for birds? Behold the glamorous Mandarin Duck!

Isn’t this duck glorious?

In North America, the Mandarin Duck is what we call a “rare migrant:” this bird species just doesn’t occur on this continent. The Mandarin Duck calls eastern China (winter range), south-east Russia (breeding), and Japan (resident) home. Populations have been introduced in western Europe.

Aix_galericulata_dis
Home range of the Mandarin Duck. Blue, winter range; Yellow, breeding range; Green, year-round; Light green, introduced. North America isn’t even on the map. Image By User:Engineer111, expanded & updated User:MPF – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74672

This glamorous duck has excitedly ruffled feathers in both British Columbia and New York. New Yorkers and tourists flocked (oh yes, I did that) to Central Park to see this colorful duck. School groups have even shown up to experience this eco-extravaganza.

How does a gorgeous duck that calls China, Russia, and Japan home get all the way to North America? Mandarin Ducks do not have a migration route that comes anywhere near the east or west coasts of North America. Could a Mandarin Duck possibly have been blown off course and ended up on the West Coast? That’s almost 7,000 kilometers off course. This isn’t a short hop from the Russian Commander Islands to Attu Island, Alaska (335 kilometers). I’ve been lost before, but never THAT lost. Being naturally blown off course is not a plausible origin story for SuperGlam Duck.

Zoos have all of their Mandarin Ducks accounted for, so what’s more likely is that someone’s pet Mandarin Duck has migrated off their personal property. He may have flown in from another state, or call NYC home. If this Mandarin Duck is a New Yorker, his owner will likely not come forward: ducks are not allowed as pets in the city.

Issues with the Mandarin Duck: Wildlife Harassment

This is a big issue for me. While many many people are excited to see NYC’s newest superstar, this duck may be hounded. People are worried that the flaparazzi are going to harass the Mandarin Duck and the other birds at Central Park. Wildlife harassment for tourist snaps is a major problem in parks and other wildlife areas. In the quest for the perfect wildlife picture, tourists get way too close to wildlife (which stresses out the animal and puts the photographer in danger), trample sensitive habitat, and even bait wildlife to set the scene for their shot in parks in both Canada and the United States, like this person standing way too close to a bison in Yellowstone. Recently a video of a drone harassing a mother bear and cub went viral, originally posted as “inspirational” (I’m not linking to the video.) Those bears were distressed, and there’s nothing inspirational about that.

Really, I am hoping that our Mandarin Duck finds a nice quiet home. There’s also a chance that all of the attention will scare off the duck, or stress it out to the point where it will become ill. Seriously: if you are going to go see the Mandarin Duck, please keep a respectful distance. Sacrifice your perfect shot for what’s good for the Mandarin Duck, and for the rest of the ducks it is flocking with.

Issues with the Mandarin Duck: Feeding Wildlife, a.k.a. Don’t Feed Ducks Bread!

Another concern is what people might be feeding our feathered friends. When people think about feeding ducks is breadcrumbs. Rachel Feltman tells us in Popular Science how bread is one of the worst things you could feed ducks. Bread is essentially junk food for birds. Birds need protein and fat, and bread is low-quality calories. Ducks that gorge on bread become malnourished, which can lead to growth abnormalities. Ducks that are used to eating bread also forget how to forage for their natural foods, especially if they grow up eating bread. Bread that doesn’t get eaten grows mold and encourages algae growth, which can harm a lot of wildlife. IF you are going to feed the ducks, vegetable material is better. Peas, corn, and leafy greens are actually duck-tested, duck-approved snacks (tested by Canal & River Trust).

These are two concerns with which I completely agree. I hope that people really don’t want to harm the ducks they are watching, and would readily do the right thing as long as they know.

The Mandarin Duck as a “Plastic” Sighting

One critique that ruffled my feathers is that the sighting of the Mandarin Duck isn’t a real bird sighting. These Mandarin Ducks are likely escapees from someone’s backyard farm. In terms of seeing a bird in the “wild” the Mandarin Duck sightings can be considered the equivalent of checking off a Secretary Bird from your life list by visiting the zoo. These kinds of sightings are called “plastic” because they are considered artificial.

To that particular critique, I ask: who cares?!?

Who gives a Barred Owl hoot if this Mandarin Duck is an “artificial” or “plastic” sighting? How many people who have gone to see the Mandarin Duck in Vancouver or New York would be able to book a self-funding trip to Japan or eastern China to see a Mandarin Duck in its native habitat? I know that I couldn’t foot that bill. Could you? Are you going to walk up to a school group that traveled to see the Mandarin Duck and tell those students that their sighting doesn’t count? I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. The idea that you are not birding “for real” unless you see these birds in their natural habitat is, frankly, a very privileged take on birding.  If you don’t want to count the Mandarin Duck for your own life list that is fine: you do you. I’m not prepared to squish someone’s enthusiasm for seeing a bird (responsibly) they wouldn’t normally get a chance to see.

None of the above justifies duck-bothering or wildlife harassment. DON’T.

HARASS.

WILDLIFE.

What Can We Do About The Mandarin Duck?

I am thrilled that people are thrilled about seeing the Mandarin Duck. When they go to see the Mandarin Duck, they are going to be exposed to their local wildlife, even if their original goal is to see this “artificial” bird. They get to see the other ducks that are paddling around with our star duck. They get to do an in-life comparison of Mandarin Ducks with Wood Ducks, Mallards, and the other ducks that frequent their area.

Increased interest in duck-related things can lead to educational opportunities, like helping people learn why bread is bad for ducks (and why feeding wildlife is not really a good idea.) It can start the conversation with people about how to responsibly interact with wildlife. It can point people towards waterfowl and waterfowl ecosystem conservation groups.

A big conversation is that we shouldn’t release, accidentally or otherwise, exotic species into ecosystems. There are many examples in the history of ecology when an exotic species had a negative impact on the species natural to that ecosystem. Exotic rats, toads, snakes, and even earthworms do tremendous damage over time by outcompeting local species, treating local species like a buffet, or altering the habitat so that it is unsuitable for local species. Just because I want to see a Secretary Bird (I’m a little obsessed with them, I admit) doesn’t mean that I would support the intentional release of a population of them in the fields of Saskatchewan, and if a Secretary Bird were to accidentally escape a zoo, I would want it returned home as soon as possible. Same goes for the Mandarin Duck. An egg was definitely broken when this pet/farm Mandarin Duck did the Great Escape, but let’s see what educational omelet we can make from it.

It’s OK To Like The Mandarin Duck…Just Do It Responsibly!

If you are planning on seeing the Mandarin Duck in Vancouver or New York, here’s your opportunity to do this responsibly and ethically. Set a good example. If you’re leading birding groups or school groups to see the Mandarin Duck, make sure that you lead these trips ethically. Use this opportunity to promote responsible wildlife viewing.

This week’s Bird Glamour celebrates a Mandarin Duck that went WAY off course during its migration and ended up in Vancouver or New York! Migrating birds have a pretty good sense of direction, but can ducks read maps?

Mandarin Duck Bird Glamour
Mandarin Duck Bird Glamour, November 09 2018. The female Mandarin Duck is very similar in appearance to the North American Wood Duck.

Bird Tracks in the Classroom, Prologue

Hello Dear Readers!

I’ll be honest: I’m a little preoccupied with present-day bird tracks. I look for them when I’m on walks. I look for bird tracks when I take my recycling to the depot at the dump (the open pond sewage treatment area is there as well, sometimes attracting shorebirds and always attracting ducks and ravens.) Some opportunities I can anticipate, especially the outside-based ones. Others I stumble across.

The Fledgling Idea

I had the opportunity to visit an elementary school classroom, and saw the most amazing thing. There was a small box with a heat lamp. Inside came the heart-melting peeping of baby chickens. Sure enough, this elementary classroom had received chicken eggs to incubate as part of an experiential learning project of the life cycle of a chicken and birds in general. Once the chicks reach a certain age, they go back to the farm from where the eggs came.

So I started thinking…

If a classroom or an outdoor group has the opportunity to raise chickens (or other farm birds), they have the chance to see these birds grow from floofy baby chicks to adult floofy adult chickens. Baby birds grow quickly: they need to because even the precocial chicks (able to run around soon after hatching) are vulnerable to predators. There have been some studies on how present-day baby birds change size and shape as they age, this kind of study hasn’t been done on their footprints. One of my Ph.D. committee members had the idea of raising chickens to collect this data. Unfortunately, I currently live in an area where the rules on in-town chicken-keeping aren’t clear. But short-term science projects in a school setting are different than residential agriculture.

I asked the teacher “What would you think about adding a footprint-based science activity with these chicks that would be used in a scientific study?” We exchanged information (they thought it was a good idea) but unfortunately I not able to get this test project launched. I never heard back from the teacher (they likely already had a ton on their plate) and the chicks went back to the farm…but it did give me more time to think about the project.

Project Prologue

The Project “Chicken Tracks” is a workbook that will lay out, step-by-step (pun completely intended) how to collect, record, and make replicas of tracks of chickens (or any domesticated farm bird). The workbook will describe the same procedures that I use to collect data for scientific publications. Ichnology (the study of tracks and traces) is, in my experience, extremely accessible. Sure, as a subject in science it comes with its own particular jargon and methods, but the act of collecting the information just takes careful practice and consistency.

Interpreting that information is where ichnology gets complicated. When we look at fossil footprints and trackways, it’s always important to remember that they were made by living, breathing animals. The nice part of looking at the tracks of present-day animals is that we can actually watch the animals make the tracks! Being able to watch animals make tracks connects, us as observers of the natural world, to the animal’s life and behavior. It’s easier to connect to tracks, to make interpretations about the animal that made them when you can see the animals in action.

At this point, the “Chicken Tracks” activity book is in progress. It contains basic introductory information, information sections for instructors, equipment lists, data collection sheets, and of course the how-to sections. There will be (as my artistic abilities allow) diagrams and cute pictures of baby chicks and other birds. Ultimately, the data collected using “Chicken Tracks” will be a citizen science data pool that will be used in studies on bird and dinosaur footprints. Progress on “Chicken Tracks” has been good. At this point, I’m figuring out all of the different steps of the activity that will make the written instructions (already completed).

While I hope that Chicken Tracks will be a useful (and fun!) science project for classrooms, it has been an invaluable exercise for me! There’s nothing like teaching others how to do A Thing to really understand what you know (or don’t know!) about A Thing. It also highlights all of the parts of ichnology and bird that I (over a decade’s worth of experience working in ichnology) might take for granted as being “common knowledge.” These things are common knowledge to me. They are common knowledge to my colleagues. But what about someone who is interested in animal footprints and footprint identification and wants to learn more and wants to be involved in the science of ichnology? That’s who “Chicken Tracks” is for.

I’ll keep you posted on when “Chicken Tracks” will be ready! If you have any questions in the meantime, please let me know in the comments!

Vote in the 2018 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online!

Hello Dear Readers!

Science Borealis and their co-sponsor, the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada (SWCC) are excited to present the nominees for the 2018 People’s Choice Awards: Canada’s Favourite Science Online…AND BIRDS IN MUD WAS NOMINATED!

THANK YOU!

Seriously, thank you! I am honored that people think that what I have to say on studying fossil footprints (a.k.a. ichnology), and life in museums and as a palaeontologist matters. Studying fossils is really all about sharing their stories with the world, and I’m glad you like the fossil stories I’ve shared.

How Does It Work?

Each weekday between the Monday, September 17th launch and the close of voting on Saturday, September 29th Science Borealis and SWCC will feature one blog and one site across their social media channels. Each nominated blog/site will be featured once during the event.

If you’re on social media, follow the #CdnSciFav hashtag! You’ll see the nominated blogs appear there! This is also SciLit Week (Sept 17-21), so also follow the #scilit18 hashtag!

It’s a People’s Choice Award, so voting is open to you, Dear Readers! Vote for your favorite nominated blogs using the link below!

http://blog.scienceborealis.ca/vote-2018-peoples-choice-awards-canadas-favourite-science-online

I’m Totally Voting! What Do You Win?

Bragging rights!

If I win, I get a Winner badge for Birds in Mud, and a write-up based on an interview that gets posted on the Science Borealis and Science Writers and Communicators of Canada websites.

Really, everyone involved in science communication wins! We need science communication and science communicators. It’s tough but fulfilling work.  We need everyone who has that talent and means and opportunity to not only get science out to the people but to connect people to that science. You don’t have to study it to think it’s important or to care about it. Your work matters, Science Communicators! People are listening!

What Have I Written?

This is my new site for the Birds in Mud blog, and I am very proud of the posts I have up here. The bulk of the posts for Birds in Mud are over at my old site on Blogger. Below I have links to my top six favorite posts on the old site:

  1. Some of my science! Here are all of the things I have to consider when I try to tell a large fossil bird footprint from a small non-birdy theropod footprint. Theropod versus Large Bird?: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2015/12/treading-ambiguously-theropod-versus.html
  2. Some more of my science! How we named a new type of Early Cretaceous fossil bird footprint! Introducing Paxavipeshttp://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2015/03/early-bird-tracks-in-british-columbia.html
  3. Why the Commerical Fossil Trade is Elitism in Palaeontology – The Ivory Tower of Buying Fossils: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2018/05/the-ivory-tower-of-buying-fossils.html
  4. What do Tyrannosaurus rex sounds have in common with ghosts? Read Sound Bites: Hearing a Tyrannosaurus rex to find out: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2017/12/sound-bites-hearing-tyrannosaurus-rex.html
  5. Do you think it would be great fun to have a science communication pamphlet to hand to solicitors who ring your bell? I sure do! See my first (and so far only) Science Tracks pamphlet here! http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2017/01/strange-woman-presents-science-tracks.html
  6. Before you write a news article on how “absurd” a country’s/province’s fossil protection laws are, you might want to consider what’s best for the fossils. Responsible Fossil Stewardship: You Might Not Get To Do Exactly What You Want With Fossils: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2016/09/responsible-fossil-stewardship-you.html

Enjoy the voting! Let’s spread that science communication joy!

How To Make Bird Track Casts

Hello, Dear Readers!

Part of the research that I do on Cretaceous-age bird tracks (a.k.a. individual footprints) and trackways involves me becoming very familiar with all kinds of bird tracks, not just the fossilized ones. Tracks and trackways of small creatures are ephemeral: they do not last very long because they are easily trampled or eroded away, or they dry and crumble, blowing away on the winds of time.

Most of the Cretaceous-age bird tracks that I study are the tracks of birds that were the Cretaceous-equivalents (paleo-ecologically speaking) of our present-day shorebirds and wading birds. These are birds that spent a great deal of time along Cretaceous beaches, lakeshores, and river banks, or that waded in shallow waters and left tracks in the soft, damp sediment (usually sand or silt.)

In a very general sense, Cretaceous-age shorebird and wading bird tracks have a lot of similarities with their present-day representatives. They are generally small, meaning they are less than 10 cm from the “heel” (which is really the metatarsophalangeal pad area, because birds walk on their toes only) to the tip of the middle toe. These tracks tend to have three forward-facing toes and sometimes have a single backward-facing toe. This foot shape is called “anisodactyl.” These tracks also have fairly narrow toe (or digit) impressions. We know that these Cretaceous-age shorebirds and wading birds strolled around in environments similar to our present-day shorebirds and wading birds (Kim et al. 2012 – Paradise of Mesozoic Birds.)

Our present-day wild shorebirds and wading bird populations and their environments provide a living laboratory in which to better understand how Cretaceous-age shorebirds and wading birds interacted with their paleoenvironments. So, how do I go about studying present-day bird footprints?

First, spend a lot of time sitting in shorebird environments, just watching birds from a distance. Watching from a distance is important: you don’t want to do too many things that will “weird out” the shorebirds. I want the birds to act as “normal” as possible so that their tracks and trackways are as “normal” as possible. I want to see how birds directly interact with their environment when they are going about their birdy lives. I also don’t want to harass the shorebirds. Although I do not chase or pester shorebirds, they do know I am there. How could they not notice that strange, chemical-smelling (from insect repellent) biped crunching around in the bushes? It’s just a matter of being as much of a non-entity as possible. Some species seem very relaxed with a large biped in their midst (Spotted Sandpipers). Some species will not appear until I either leave or spend several immobile hours observing (Solitary Sandpipers).

Sleepy birbs
These juvenile Spotted Sandpipers are comfortable with my presence after about an hour of me sitting on this river bank. You can see Canada Goose tracks in the foreground.

Second, I identify the birds that I see so that I know what is making the tracks. Part of my work is trying to link the trackmaker (the bird) to the shape of the tracks they make. The more precise I can get with the link, the more accurately we can say how many different types of shorebirds were running around Cretaceous-age shorelines. The more present-day bird tracks I can study, the better.

Solitary Sandpipers
This photo is an entry for #WorstBirdPic: these two Solitary Sandpipers were identified using binoculars.

Let’s jump to the “Hey, there’s a shorebird trackway!” moment. Shorebird tracks are finite phenomena, which is a problem for research: someone should be able to double-check my studies in the future, but they can’t if the trackways have washed away or crumbled to dry sand. I need a stable record of the tracks I measure. I’m only still learning the proper techniques for taking useable photogrammetry photos of small tracks (link to Bureau of Land Management PDF of Neffra Matthews work on digitizing track sites).

What I do is make plaster replicas of bird tracks.

[WARNING SIRENS SOUNDING] ICHNOLOGIST’S RANT: Do not ever, EVER, pour any kind of plaster into a fossil track. There are likely exceptions to this but those are case-by-case instances, and the action should be done by an experienced paleontologist. Every year fossil tracks are irreversibly damaged by someone using plaster. See this article about the tracks on Scotland’s Dinosaur Isle, and a similar case near Moab in Utah. Even if it is someone who simply wanted a souvenir,  actions outweigh intent, and the action is damage to irreplaceable heritage.

Why is plaster on a fossil track surface a bad idea? Fossil track surfaces are HARD. Plaster sets up HARD. Hard plaster does not dislodge from under hard rock undercuts, overhangs, and jagged surfaces. Here’s what happens: either the plaster cast gets stuck, breaks and remains inside the track, or the uneven parts of the track break and pieces are ripped up with the plaster cast. Please please PLEASE leave fossil track replica-making to the professionals. Support your local museums and purchase one of the track replicas they provide. [END ICHNOLOGIST’S RANT]*

*In case you are wondering, a version of these two paragraphs will appear in every post I write on using plaster on present-day tracks.

Now that we have a bird trackway to cast (this particular trackway looks a lot like a plover trackway, likely a Killdeer), we need a procedure for how to 1. successfully, and 2. CLEANLY make a plaster replica out in the wilds. You might be making casts in areas to which you cannot readily drive: you’ll have to hand-carry or backpack your equipment to the site.

Here are the steps I follow for one way to make a plaster bird trackway replica in the wild. Of course, this would work for the present-day tracks of other animals – you might need more or less plaster depending on the size of the tracks and trackway. One of the benefits of bird tracks is that they are small!

HOW TO MAKE A BIRD TRACKWAY REPLICA OUT OF PLASTER OF PARIS

  1. Find a shorebird-friendly environment! These areas may be very wet and difficult to walk on, so be careful not to sink in and get stuck! Find your bird trackway. Take lots of reference photos with a scale in the photograph.
SONY DSC
This area looks stable, but at least a meter away from the water’s edge was too wet and unstable to walk on without deforming the tracks.
SONY DSC
If the trackway is long, find a series of tracks that are clearly defined, or show interesting behavior (stumbles, trips, feeding traces, courtship or mating traces, landing traces, etc.)

2. Find a dry(ish) stable area to unload your track casting equipment! Equipment you will need:

  • A 3-gallon bucket. All of my casting gear will fit inside of this bucket, which then goes into my large backpack or I hand-carry it. This could also be used as your mixing bucket if you are sure that it doesn’t have any cracks or leaks. This bucket can also be used to scoop up water (if your casting area has available water).
  • Latex or nitryl gloves. Hand-mixing plaster is HARD on the hands: it can irritate your skin. It really dries out my skin and nails. Also, gloves can be taken off, whereas hands need to be washed (you won’t have a sink in the wild). Pro-tip: I use gloves that are one size too large so that I can easily take them off and put them back on. You can also use multiple pairs of gloves if you have them.
  • Dust mask. Plaster of Paris is very dusty. You do not want to inhale it.
  • Safety glasses. Learn from my mistakes, Dear Readers. I have glopped plaster into my eyes. An organic-rich stream is not a substitute for an eye-wash station. Also, a backpack eyewash bottle with clean water is a really good idea to have on you.
  • Garbage bag(s). This is essential since you want to keep your mixing area clean. Your garbage bag will be your containment system.
  • Plaster of Paris. This is your casting material. Pictured is a 2 kg container. For this project, I will end up using about 1 kg of dry plaster total (half the container). You can purchase this plaster in many hardware stores.
  • Plaster scoop. I used my hands on this trip, but a scoop (an old measuring cup works well) is highly recommended.
  • Ziploc-style plastic bag. This is your mixing bag. This is a nice flexible container in which to mix small batches of plaster.
  • Water. If your casting area doesn’t have standing or running water, you’ll have to bring your own. Plaster mix requires 2 parts plaster to 1 part water mix.
  • Cardboard, duct tape, and a cutting instrument. This is what you will use to make a dam to keep your plaster from spreading all over the place.
  • Strengthening fabric. This will be added to your second layer of plaster to add structural strength to the cast, as casts can be fragile. Materials that are best for making wild casts are strips of fiberglass matting (chop is VERY messy), burlap/jute, or cheesecloth. This time I used shredded cardboard – it worked!
  • Felt-tipped marker. You will want to label your bird track cast so that you know the who, what, where, and when of your cast!
  • Camera, photo scale, notebook. I always take reference photographs of bird tracks before I cast them. Once I make the cast, the original tracks are gone.
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Track casting equipment, clockwise from left: plastic mixing bag; cardboard for plaster dam and strengthening fabric; carrying bucket with a garbage bag inside; protective gloves. Not shown are the cutting tool, duct tape, notebook, felt-tipped marker, and camera. My water source was right next to me in the creek.

3. Label the trackway. The plaster cast is going to display a mirror image of the original tracks: what was in (a depression) will stick out, what looks left will appear on the right. It might be hard to tell what is a left track and a right track. I always choose one left track and scratch a small “L” for “Left” next to it. This “L” will show up in the final cast. That way I know for sure which tracks are from the left and the right, even if it looks reversed in the cast.

Bird track casting 6 - label trackway
Label the trackway. The white arrow points to the small “L” that I scratch next to one left track. The “L” will show up in the final cast and will help me orient the tracks in the trackway.

4. Make the cardboard dam. Cut strips of cardboard and tape the strips together to make one long cardboard strip. You can make it long enough to completely encircle the tracks that you want to cast if the ground is relatively flat (or if you accidentally mix your plaster on the runny side, which is OK.)

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5. Place your cardboard dam on edge on the track surface. If there is a slope to the track surface, place the dam on the downslope side of the trackway. Gently press the edge of the cardboard dam into the sediment – make sure you’re far enough away from the tracks so that you don’t deform them when you press the cardboard into the sediment!

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The cardboard dam is now set firmly into the track surface. No plaster shall pass!

*6. Set up the plaster mixing station. Put on your safety gear (gloves, mask, glasses). Plaster of Paris has the same consistency of flour: it is dusty and It. Gets. Everywhere. Here’s how to keep your mixing area clean:

  • Open up your big garbage bag so that it will act like a big bowl
  • Place plaster container and mixing bag inside the garbage bag inside the garbage bag bowl.

Now, any plaster that spills out of your hands or scoop will fall into the garbage bag rather than on the ground.

Bird track casting - scoop
CAREFULLY scoop Plaster of Paris into the mixing bag.

*7. Add water to the plaster. The recommended ratio of plaster to water is 2 parts plaster to 1 part water. You can measure it or eyeball it (I’ve done this so many times that now I eyeball it, but if you’re unfamiliar with plaster, I strongly recommend a measuring scoop.)

* Steps 6 and 7 can be reversed: you can also pre-measure out the water and add the plaster to the water. If you have a limited supply of either plaster or water, I strongly recommend using a measuring scoop so that you get the right ratio of plaster to water. It’s easy to accidentally add too much plaster to the water. From experience, it is better to make your plaster mix a little too runny. A runny mix will take a longer to set up, but it will capture all of the small details. If your mix is too thick, it may not settle into all of the small parts of the bird footprints. A thick mixture will also hold on to more air bubbles, which like to settle into the toes of bird tracks. Also, the thicker the plaster mix, the less time you have to work with it before it hardens.

Bird track casting - mixing
Add water to plaster (or plaster to water) and thoroughly mix. Use your fingers (WHILE WEARING GLOVES) to break apart plaster clumps.

8. Let the plaster soak into the water for a minute or two, then mix, mix, mix. You will want to make sure there are no lumps. Mixing plaster is a lot like using pancake mix.  I like to mix plaster with my hands (WEARING GLOVES) so that I can feel for plaster lumps and break them apart with my fingers. Don’t worry: I don’t mix pancake batter using my hands.

9. Once the plaster is thoroughly mixed, tap the bottom of the bag several times. You’ll see a scum of air bubbles form on the top of the plaster. These air bubbles are the bane of plaster casts. Plaster will set up around these air bubbles, creating pockets of space that don’t preserve any of the track details. Use your fingers or your scoop to skim most of the air bubbles off of the surface. You can dispose of the scooped foam in your garbage bag.

Bird track casting - air bubbles
Do you see the foam of air bubbles? Scoop those off of the plaster surface.

10. It’s plaster pouring time! Small tracks on a fine-grained surface (like sand or silt) can be easily damaged. You want to pour the plaster as close to the track surface as possible so that you don’t make any pour marks on the surface. You also don’t want to pour directly on to the tracks for the same reason. Pour the plaster so that it gently runs into the tracks.

Bird track casting - pouring
Pour plaster on to the track surface. Allow the plaster to gently run into the tracks. This is your Detail Layer.

11. You have finished pouring the Detail Layer! Once you have covered all of the tracks that you want to cast with plaster, it’s time to wait for the plaster to set up. There some factors that will determine how much time this will take. If it’s hot and dry out, you’ll be ready to add the next plaster layer in as little as 20 minutes. If it is humid, cool, and if the surface is very damp, you might have to wait as long as half an hour to 45 minutes. Keep an eye on the plaster: I’ve had the local wildlife try to “investigate” the plaster!

12. Once the plaster is firm, but still damp to the touch, it’s time to add the support layer. First, prepare your support fabric. I used shredded cardboard. If you’re using cardboard, burlap, or fiberglass mat, moisten it so that it is damp, but not soggy or dripping.

13. Repeat Steps 6 and 7 to make a fresh batch of plaster. Add your strengthening fabric directly to the plaster. Mix the strengthening fabric into the plaster until it is thoroughly covered.

Bird track casting - strength
Mixing the Strengthening Layer. Yes, I am using cardboard from a Friskies brand wet cat food box. #academicswithcats

14. Spread the strengthening mix to the surface of the Detail Layer. Since the Detail Layer is still damp, it will be fragile, so be very gentle. Cover the entire Detail Layer with the Strengthening Layer. Let this layer set until it is dry to the touch.

Bird track casting - strength 2
Add the Strengthening Layer. You’ll notice that the cardboard dam didn’t come into contact with the plaster, but it’s a good precaution to have.

15. Once dry (30 minutes to an hour), it’s time to write down all of the information you can about the bird track cast. This will help to supplement any of the notes and photos that you took. Here is what I write on my track casts (as long as my pen works – if the plaster is too damp, it will clog your felt pen):

  • Date,
  • Name of the bird,
  • Name of the area (or location coordinates),
  • Orientation to the waterway: upstream, downstream, shore side, waterside,
  • North direction,
  • Your name(s),
  • Any interesting details that you noticed in the trackway.
Bird track casting - label and dig
Labeled and excavated track cast, ready to lift!

16. Once the cast is labeled, it is time to remove it from the surface! The damp sand and silt will suction the track cast to the surface, so you’ll need to dig around and underneath the cast to free it without breaking it.

17. CAREFULLY lift the plaster cast from the surface! There will be a lot of sand and silt sticking to the underside. You can remove big chunks of this sand and silt, but wait until you get back to the lab/classroom/home to clean the surface. The plaster may still be damp and fragile underneath that silt and sand.

Bird track cast - finished cast
Your finished bird track cast! Well done!

18. Your track cast is successfully lifted…but you are not finished yet! Make sure that you pick up any small pieces of dried plaster that might have dripped on to the surface. Pack up all of your garbage and tools in your carrying bucket. Find a safe way to carry your plaster cast. I usually end up hand-carrying it, or wrapping it up in a spare shirt or jacket and carrying it in my backpack.

19. When you get your track cast home, let it sit for two to three days to cure. Curing is different from hardening. Curing allows for all of the extra water not used in the chemical reaction to dry off. After the cast has cured, you can actually use water and a very soft sponge to gently remove extra sand and silt from cast so that you can see the tracks. No scrubbing or scraping with hard bristles!

I hope you find this How-To useful! If you have any questions about making present-day bird (or other critters) track casts, please feel free to contact me through this website! If you think this activity would be great for a classroom activity or want to get involved with this kind of bird ichnology, please let me know!