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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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:
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!
*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.
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
Name of the bird,
Name of the area (or location coordinates),
Orientation to the waterway: upstream, downstream, shore side, waterside,
Any interesting details that you noticed in the trackway.
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.
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!
I am at a loss for words today. Late Sunday night (in my time zone) I started seeing tweets on the devastating fire at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro. This is Brazil’s oldest scientific institution, founded in 1818, and is the largest scientific repository for historical, biological, geological, and palaeontological specimens in the country. The fire reportedly happened after hours, and no one was killed or injured (at least no injuries have been reported). Firefighters were reportedly dispatched at 7:30 pm. What we did see on Twitter were images of people trying to get as many specimens out of the inferno as safely possible: they are not my images to post, but I will link to the tweet where I saw them here:
Faces of despair.
Some people, probably scientists and students, trying to save what they can before the fire take over their part of the building.
Many life-times dedicated to build this place and its collections.
The collections that were impacted by the fire were the palaeontology specimens – including South America’s oldest human fossil, Luzia, the invertebrate specimens (insects and relatives), historical royal documents, and the country’s largest Egyptology collection. The herbarium, library, and fish and reptile collections may have been spared as they are housed separately. Indigenous knowledge is likely now lost, as the collection held audio records of languages that are not now spoken.
We are unsure at this time how many of the metal cabinets were able to withstand the intense heat of a fire this size: there is a slim chance that some specimens that could not be hand-carried by soul-sick museum staff, volunteers, firefighters, and soldiers may still be intact. We will know more when they sift through the torched remains of scientific and historical memory.
How Did This Happen?
The tl;dr version is lack of secure, stable operational funding. The Deputy Director of Museu Nacional, Luis Fernando Dias Duarte, describes in an interview with media how they Museu Nacional fought to receive adequate funding for the internationally important work of this institution. From a BBC news article:
“We fought years ago, in different governments, to obtain resources to adequately preserve everything that was destroyed today.”
There is now a public outcry regarding the neglect of government bodies towards the Museu Nacional and the operational funding, but it’s too late once the specimens and the building have been lost to a preventable event. The museum staff and scientists have been trying to raise awareness of the lack of funding for the Museu Nacional for years. Also quoted from the Deputy Director in The Guardian:
“For many years we fought with different governments to get adequate resources to preserve what is now completely destroyed,” he said. “My feeling is of total dismay and immense anger.”
What amounts of money are we talking about anyway? It is a frustratingly small amount. The Museu Nacional is supposed to receive $128,000 annually for its operations, but since 2014 it has not received the full amount. National Geographic reports that in 2018 the Museu Nacional received a grand total of…wait for it…$13,000, and had to temporarily close its doors.
That is just for the operational costs. Operations refer to day-to-day activities of a museum: paying staff, heating, lights, and general maintenance and cleaning. Operational expenses do not cover the capital upgrades and renovations that a historic building (it was once the royal court in 1808) such as the Museu Nacional needs to keep staff and specimens safe. Capital projects refer to large targeted projects and major equipment. Major renovation projects that needed to be crowdfunded (that should have been paid for by the state and national government) include damage done by termites to the museum’s major dinosaur exhibit. There was a modernization plan in place that would have addressed the fire prevention system as well as other necessities, but that plan was not to take place until after October elections. The firefighters could only work with what they had available, and that was water from a nearby lake. They did all they could. Politics delayed a plan that would have prevented this tragedy.
But now it is too late. How much will it now cost to just repair the structure? How much will it cost to replace the archival equipment? We can’t ask “How much will it cost to replace the lost specimens” because WE CANNOT REPLACE THE LOST SPECIMENS. Many of those specimens include type specimens: that means they are the first and best example of an organism. They are the specimen that contains all of the information we need to study these organisms. Once you lose those, you lose the source of that knowledge. How do you replace that? How do you replace the years, decades, centuries of work that went into investigating those specimens? How do you replace the careers that are built on those specimens?
These specimens represent 200 years of Brazil’s history. Two hundred years of dedicated work by Brazil’s scientists, students, museum professionals, and volunteers. Two hundred years of accumulated knowledge that helped us better understand our place as humans in this great complex world. We can’t replace that.
A Wake-Up Call To The Funders of the World’s Museums
Where was this government-level concern when the tragedy could have been prevented by ensuring the Museu Nacional received enough funding to have their systems upgraded early on? Note: $128,000 is a paltry amount of money for a museum operating budget. A museum of this stature should have an annual operating budget of millions, not thousands, for its staff to properly care for priceless heritage.
Where was the government-level concern when the museum only received $13,000 this year and had to close its doors? That alone should have been a wake-up call for funders that the Museu Nacional was struggling, but it wasn’t enough.
Where was the government-level concern when the Museu Nacional had to crowdfund the repairs for the palaeontology exhibit?
Where was the government-level concern when, for years, the personnel of the Museu Nacional tried to secure government funds?
The main reason the government (which consistently neglected the Museu Nacional) made such a statement of rebuilding using public and private funds is that this a highly visible tragedy. A government can easily ignore a group of museum professionals and scientists when they ask for needed funds. Those asks are often done quietly, through “the proper channels,” as it were. These asks are done with the idea in mind that the scientists and museum professionals will be painted as trying to manipulate the government into giving them money if they make the ask publicly-known. Publicly revealing requests to government is framed by the recipients as blackmail and unwarranted pressure. So museums ask politely. Museums wait patiently. Museums continue to publicly thank the government for whatever inadequate funding they receive. Sometimes government officials suggest going after private donations instead of asking the government to help care for its heritage: private or industrial funding isn’t common, and it puts the responsibility on museums already stretched to their limits. Museums continue to limp along on shoestring budgets, expected to deliver programs while being simultaneously starved.
This is not the only museum, not the only home of irreplaceable and invaluable history and heritage, that has been gutted by short-sighted neglect and the consequential preventable tragedy. The Natural History Museum in New Delhi lost its entire collection to a fire in 2016. The fire suppression system was out of order, and the museum was already known to be inadequately maintained (which requires money.) The Butantan Institute (Sao Paulo) collections, which housed snake, scorpion, and spider specimens used for vaccines and medical research, were gutted by a fire in 2010. The archive was not equipped with a fire suppression system (which requires money).
If you read the news articles regarding these great losses, you’ll see official government quotes that express sadness for the loss of irreplaceable heritage and what a loss it is to the country and the world, etcetera, etcetera. Those sentiments tend to ring hollow in the ears of those who fought for years to maintain bare minimum funding from these same governments, only to be rebuked or ignored.
Government and private funders of museums need to learn these valuable lessons from the Museu Nacional tragedy:
Many museum specimens cannot be replaced once they are destroyed. If the destruction was preventable, funders bear the responsibility of that loss to the world. That is bad optics. Even if funders do not care a sniff over the heritage lost, they should care about how the public and the world perceives the inaction that leads to these tragedies.
It is less expensive to properly fund a museum in the long-term than it is to repair and rebuild after a preventable tragedy. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.
A properly funded museum is a public relations asset that can either work in a government’s favor. A poorly funded museum will display the government’s inadequacies. VIPs touring the museum will look with a critical eye at the water-stained ceiling tiles, the old computers in offices, and the outdated lighting fixtures. They will see the strain in the eyes of museum personnel who have stretched themselves to the limit to keep that museum running on fumes.
I completely trust the professionals at the Museu Nacional when they say they have fought for years for adequate support. I trust them because they are the professionals at that museum, and fought for years for it to succeed in spite of (not thanks to) the funding they received. I trust the professionals at the Museu Nacional because I too am a museum professional. I have been involved with running a natural history museum on inadequate funding for fourteen years, and I am familiar with the stress and the strain, the blood, sweat, and tears one pours into a museum to keep it running. To think that museum professionals don’t know – and I mean intimately know – exactly what it takes to maintain and upgrade that institution is ridiculous. Their dedication, time, love, and devotion to caring for those now-lost specimens as best as they could was disrespected beyond measure each time they were ignored, dismissed, or delayed. Museum professionals are not trying to scam money for expensive personal vacations: they are worried sick about the specimens.
An organization, government or otherwise, cannot claim to care for or respect their heritage if they are not doing the utmost to properly care for that heritage. Doing the utmost requires providing stable, adequate, long-term operational funding. It requires acting quickly to help a museum upgrade old systems (wiring, fire suppression, etc.) It requires respecting the museum professionals enough to recognize that they are tasked with an internationally important responsibility of being stewards of irreplaceable heritage.
The Museu Nacional will continue, and hopefully now with the funding that it needed all along. We need to ensure that other museums that are currently struggling to keep the lights on and care for their heritage receive the support they deserve…before tragedy strikes.
It’s been a while since I’ve dusted off the Blog: it’s been a stressful time for the Strange Woman, and while Tolkien made the apt observation that harrowing tales make the best stories (The Hobbit), I’m bored of thinking about it, and would much rather talk about paleontology! Our research group had a fun time publishing on my favorite subject: BIRDS! Specifically, we have a recent paper in Cretaceous Research on a new avian ichnotaxon (footprint type) from the Peace Region of British Columbia!
Please join me in welcoming Paxavipes (Peace bird footprint, in reference to the Peace Region) babcockensis (in reference to Mount Babcock, the mountain on which the specimen was discovered) to the ichnological family! OK, that’s not taxonomically accurate, as Paxavipes is also part of a new ichnofamily. Bear with me.
Bird tracks have been known from British Columbia, and specifically the Peace Region, since their scientific debut in 1981 with Aquatilavipes swiboldae (Currie, 1981). This specimen was recovered as part of the salvage and study operation performed by the then Provincial Museum of Alberta before the completion of the Peace Canyon hydroelectric dam. The area was so well-known for its palaeontological heritage that it was officially designated a Provincial Historic Resource in the 1930s. Today you would need gills and fins (and a whole bunch of de-silting equipment) to see these localities, as they are now underneath what is known as Dinosaur Lake. The type slab for Aquatilavipes swiboldae now resides in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology (RTMP). At the time of its scientific write-up, it was the earliest known bird track type, being from Gething Formation deposits that are Lower Cretaceous (Aptian, approximately 125 – 113 million years old). Since then, no bird footprints have been published on from British Columbia…until now.
The rock slab on which Paxavipes are preserved was discovered in 2005 by a (then) doctoral student Curtis Lettely (University of Alberta). The slab was discovered in an area locally called The Boulder Gardens. The Boulder Gardens is series of hiking trails leading outdoor adventurers through a gorgeous sup-alpine terrain of visually stunning sandstone erosional features. Check out more information on the PDF here. Boulder Gardens is within the boundaries of the newly established Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark. The Boulder Gardens showcases rock from the Boulder Creek Formation, which is Early Cretaceous (middle-upper Albian, approximately 100 to 105 million years old.)
This was an interesting slab. The rock slab was found vertically embedded in eroded rubble and dirt, and what was exposed was covered in many lichen colonies. Lichen is hard, crusty, and hides any surface details it covers. We could see that there were small theropod footprints (Irenichnites-looking prints), and a few visible bird footprints, but did not know how many prints were preserved on the surface, or anything detailed about their shape, with all of that crusty lichen. That lichen had to go…
Fig. 2 of PRPRC 2005.001.015 from Buckley and McCrea (2009). It’s easy to see which part of the slab was exposed for lichen colonization.
…but carefully. Lichen is a resistant organism – what else can you expect when fungi and cyanobacteria form an alliance (symbiotic relationship)? Mechanically scraping off the lichen was not an option, as that would have risked mechanically scraping the track surface and the prints it preserved. After trying out a few different chemicals, we saw that a dilute bleach solution effective at breaking down the lichen to a point where it could be gently brushed away with a soft toothbrush. The technique worked so well that it became the topic of my first first-author publication (Buckley and McCrea, 2009).
Once the lichen was removed, the surface was revealed…and what a reveal! A grand total of 72 bird footprints were visible, which enabled us to make out five trackways – series of footprints made by one bird walking from Point A to B. Single footprints are like an isolated bone or tooth – they give us good information, but not as much as a whole skeleton does. Trackways are like the whole skeleton.
Fig. 4 from Buckley and McCrea (2009) So many bird footprints were visible once the lichen was removed!
Another cool “after lichen” reveal was that the small theropod footprints had tiny skin impressions on them! Check out the teeny tiny pebbly texture:
Fig. 6 from McCrea et al. (2015). Skin impressions such as these give us a good idea of what the soles of dinosaurs’ feet looked like. These tubercles likely acted like the treads on our running shoes.
Back to the birds. Since we have trackways, we could tell left footprints from right footprints, but not easily. There was something odd with these particular bird footprints. The usual case for bird footprints is that the outer toe is much more splayed away from the middle toe than is the inner toe (or the toes have a roughly equal amount of splay). These footprints were strange in that the inner toe was more splayed than the outer toe. It wasn’t just one or two footprints out the 72: it was the majority of the prints.
Fig. 4 from McCrea et al. (2015) showing the holotype trackway – see the wider splay between the inner digits?
Something was up. There is a bit of natural side-to-side wiggle potential in bird toes, and modern bird footprints can show a big differences in toe splay (70 degrees to 140 degrees between the outer digits), but a consistently larger splay between the inner (digit II) toe and the middle (digit III) toe is not common in Cretaceous avian bird footprints. The only other bird footprint type that shows this toe arrangement is Barrosopus slobodai (Coria et al. 2002) from the Late Cretaceous of Argentina. Because these two footprint types are unique when compared to all other Mesozoic bird footprints (but different enough to still be considered separate footprint types), we formed a new ichno (footprint) family of bird prints called the Paxavipedidae. Any new three-toed bird footprint (no hallux) with consistently wider splay between digits II and II than between digits III and IV and thick digits can be assigned to this new footprint family.
As an ichnologist, when I see a repeated footprint shape or toe arrangement within all that natural variation, I begin to think about the shape of the foot. Specifically, I think about the features of the skeleton that made that footprint shape possible. Looking at modern birds, Paxavipes and Barrosopus prints are very close in shape to footprints of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus).
I love this image by Ryan Hodnett, found on Wikipedia. No, Killdeer are not some strange Octo-Bird: those are young Killdeer hiding under the parent.
Looking at the foot bones of a Killdeer (welcome to my thesis!), the end of the metatarsals (the lower part of the “leg” of the birds that you see hiding in the above image) are shaped in such a way that the inner toe (when attached) is going to be more splayed than the outer toe! Footprints may not always match the skeletons of feet perfectly, since living feet are covered with skin and muscle. In some cases, like with two-toed dromaeosaur trackways, there are features of the animal’s skeleton that are expressed in the footprints. When we find these features, we have a good chance of predicting what the skeletal foot of these track-makers would look like. We haven’t yet found the track-maker for Paxavipes, but we have a good chance of recognizing it when (if) it is found! [NOTE: This doesn’t mean that Killdeer were around in the Early Cretaceous: this means that a bird with a foot shape that resembles a foot of a Killdeer was around in the Cretaceous.]
Next time you are walking along a beach and see little brown and white shorebirds skittering along the edge of the water looking for yummy invertebrates, think about a Cretaceous shoreline: you would likely notice the dinosaurs first, but the small shorebirds still made quite an impression!
Buckley LG, McCrea RT. 2009. The sodium hypochlorite solution for the removal of lichen from vertebrate track surfaces. Ichnos 16(3):230-234.
Coria RA, Currie PJ, Eberth D, Garrido A. 2002. Bird footprints from the Anacleto
Currie PJ. 1981. Bird footprints from the Gething Formation (Aptian, Lower Cretaceous) of northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 1(3-4):257-264.
McCrea RT, Buckley LG, Plint AG, Lockley MG, Matthews NA, Noble TA, Xing L, Krawetz J. 2015. Vertebrate ichnites from the Boulder Creek Formation (Lower Cretaceous: middle to ?upper Albian) of northeastern British Columbia, with a description of a new avian ichnotaxon, Paxavipes babcockensis ichnogen. et isp. nov. Cretaceous Research 55:1-18.
I’m going to start the process of migrating (Get it? Migrating? I’ll see myself out) my Blogspot “Strange Woman Standing in Mud, Looking at Birds” site over to my shiny new professional site here! Stay tuned for future posts!