We all know that Twitter can be somewhat of a cesspool of ‘splainers, sealions, and a haven for creeps in your DMs.
Twitter has also been a great place to connect with (good) people and share (good) information! I re-shared my previous post about Stolas and the Giant Cuban Owl Ornimegalonyx for International Owl Awareness Day. I was officially today years old when I learned about a legend of a giant owl and a giant extinct flightless owl.
Since I’m a big fan of big owls (and a big fan of small owls…and a fan of all owls, really) we’re going to run with the “giant flightless owl fossil and mythology” theme and talk about Chickcharney and the extinct flightless owl Tyto pollens, also known as the Andros Island barn owl, Bahamian barn owl, or Chickcharney.
Chickcharney, The Legend
Chickcharney (or Chickcharnee/Chickcharnie) calls the pine and hardwood forests of Andros Island, the largest island in the archipelago of the Bahamain Islands. Descriptions of Chickcharnies (there are more than one) tell of feathered bipedal creatures with a prehensile tail, three toes of each foot, and three visible fingers on each hand. Their red eyes are set in heads that can turn completely around. Around one meter tall, Chichcharnies are tree-nesters: if you see a tall pine tree with a fork at the top, that’s where the Chickcharnies will raise their young.
If you should happen to visit Andros Island and enjoy a hike in the forests, you would be best to carry a bright piece of cloth or flowers with you: this is said to charm the Chickcharnies. It is also best that one keeps a civil tongue in their head when they encounter a Chickcharney: they are neither “evil” (like the demon Stolas) or “good.” Chickcharnies are known mischief-makers. If you’re respectful to the Chickcharnies, you will have blessings and good fortune. Disrespect Chickcharnies at your peril, however: a lifetime of misery may follow. That may have been good advice for one former British Prime Minister to have followed, according to Chickcharney lore.
Chickcharney and Neville Chamberlain
Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister from May 1937 – May 1940, during the first eight months of the Second World War. Chamberlain is more well-known for the Munich Agreement of 1938 (the agreement that ceded western Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany to appease Adolf Hitler) than he is for his involvement with Chickcharnies, but he does make an appearance in Chickcharney lore.
When Chamberlain was around 20 years old, his father apprenticed him to an accounting firm where he later became a full employee. Joseph Chamberlain saw his family’s fortune declining, so in 1890 he put Neville in charge of establishing and managing a sisal plantation on Andros Island. Sisal, or Agave sisalana, is a species of agave that is originally from southern Mexico but has been cultivated in many places around the world for its stiff hemp-like fibers.
In 1891 Chamberlain took out a lease on a 110 km square parcel of land on Andros Island for the venture. This was possible, of course, because Great Britain began colonizing Andros Island in 1783, complete with all that entails (a.k.a. slavery.) Great Britain wasn’t the first nation to colonize and exploit Andros Island. Prior to the arrival of Spanish colonists after the initial invasion of the island between 1499 – 1500, the Lukku-Cairi people lived on Andros. Thanks to the exploitation of the Lukku-Cairi people, by 1520 the population was considered extinct.
Chamberlain spent six years trying to make the plantation work. His efforts failed. The official story is that Agave sisalana did not grow well on Andros Island. That’s too bad for Chamberlain, because the failed plantation cost the family business a whopping £50,000 (or £4.2 million in today’s dollars). [Cue sad slide-whistle noise.]
What does this have to do with Chickcharney, you ask? Well, legend has it that during his ill-fated stay on Andros Island, Chamberlain openly scoffed at the stories of the Chickcharney (as European colonizers are wont to do at the legends and lore of the areas they colonize.) The Chickcharnies apparently did not take kindly to be openly laughed at. Despite the official story of sisal’s incompatibility with the area, the failure of the sisal plantation is credited to the intervention of the offended Chickcharnies. A nod is also given to the Chickcharnies for another event that will be forever linked to Chamberlain’s legacy: the Munich Agreement ultimately failed as it did not halt the invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany as was hoped.
Don’t laugh at owls, my friends. Or legends/folklore of critters that resemble owls. It just isn’t worth the risk.
Tyto pollens, the Bahamian Owl
As we saw in the last OWLS! post about the Cuban Giant Owl Ornimegalonyx (Late Pleistocene: 126,000 – 11,700 years ago) and Stolas, the demon character from Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, are likely a case of wonderful coincidence rather than the knowledge of the fossil influencing the art/mythology. However, that may not be the case for Chickcharney and its Quaternary doppelganger, Tyto pollens.
Tyto pollens, also known as the Andros Island Barn Owl, Bahamian Barn Owl, Bahamian Great Owl, and – not surprisingly – Chickcharney, is a recently extinct owl that is in the same genus as the Barn Owl. The Andros Island Barn Owl is estimated to have stood at one meter (three feet) tall, and was considered by Wetmore (1937) as much more robust and stronger than the Barn Owl. Tyto pollens, like all owls, was a predator. What does a 1 meter tall owl eat? Wetmore (1937) thought that Tyto pollens likely preyed on the large rodent Geocapromys.
Tyto pollens is younger than the Cuban Giant Owl Ornimegalonyx in that it was present in the old growth pine forests of the Quaternary. This means that Tyto pollens was most likely seen by the original population of Andros Island: the Lukku-Cairi people most certainly encountered a 1 meter tall flightless owl. The owl was reported to have still been present on the island during the colonization by the Spanish and the British, so it is likely that any sightings of the Andros Island Barn Owl by the colonizers of Andros Island would have only served to strengthen the lore of Chickcharney. It was once the old-growth pineyards were deforested that Tyto pollens lost its habitat and went extinct in the 1600s.
Tyto pollens is noted to be very similar to another fossil owl, Tyto ostologa (Wetmore 1922) from cave deposits in the Republic of Haiti. Tyto pollens is reported to be larger than the Quaternary-aged Tyto ostologa. This is what I find the most fascinating about the story of Chickcharney: giant owls were not an isolated phenomenon.
The likelihood that Tyto pollens (and also Tyto ostologa) had inspired and influenced the lore of the Chickcharney is fairly high: the timing is right for the geographical and temporal ranges of T. pollens and humans to overlap. However, I really want to know for sure. The next step in investigating the Andros Island Barn Owl is to check documents written during the time period that Tyto pollens was still with us (a.k.a. extant) to see if there was any direct mention of a sighting of a giant owl or of a Chickcharney. I’ll be excited to see what turns up!
It’s time for the next installment of my OWLS! series of blog posts! This one is going to be a little bit different from my other posts…although, if you’ve read any of my Bigfoot or ghost posts you may not be surprised at the theme of this post.
My research takes me down a few interesting rabbit holes. One of these holes introduced me to J. A. S. Collin de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal when I searched for “giant owls.” I was looking at adaptations that cursorial (ground-running or walking) birds have in the tarsometarsus bones. That is where I encountered Stolas.
Stolas is my favorite (is favorite the right word?) character of Collin de Plancy’s demon mythology from the perspective of both an owl fanatic and a palaeontologist. Collin de Plancy describes Stolas on page 635-6 of the Dictionnaire Infernal:
“Stolas, grand prince des enfers, qui apparaît sous la forme d’un hibou ; lorsqu’il prend celle d’un homme et qu’il’se montre devant l’exorciste, il enseigne : l’astronomie, ainsi que les propriétés des plantes et la valeur des pierres -précieuses. Vingt-six légions leire connaissent pour[;] general.”
Here is my extremely rusty high school French (with a double-check in Google Translate) translation:
“Stolas, great prince of Hell, who appears in the form of an owl; when he takes that of a man and shows [himself?] before the exorcist, he teaches astronomy, as well as the properties of plants and the values of precious stones. Known for Twenty-six legions; general.”
If Stolas were real, he’d likely be a great resource of information for many in astronomy, botany, and geology. The geology link of Stolas is what makes the connection of Stolas to paleontology even more interesting. As a field palaeontologist I would find a twenty-six-legion strong field crew very useful.
Most of the demonic entities in the Dictionnaire Infernal (and earlier works on the same subject) appear as human-animal hybrids or large versions of familiar animals. Collin de Plancy does not give us a sense of scale but one’s brain does jump to “large,” or at least larger than life, when talking about demons. The dimensions of Stolas are fascinating: the woodcuts of Collin de Plancy show an owl with rather long legs, standing on the ground. The legs are longer than the body. There’s a lot going on with the appearance of Stolas that suggests he is a walker. It is unlikely that Stolas’ teeny owl body with those teeny owl wings and itty-bitty tail could haul around those legs during flight (especially while wearing his resplendent crown.)
Bestiaries and Owls
Owls appear frequently in the medieval literature, particularly in bestiaries. Bestiaries (no, not bestiality, although the root of both words is the same) depict animals both real and fanciful, from the Amphisbaena (a serpent with a head at either end), to odd interpretations of real animals. Did you know the Barnacle Goose grows from trees, dangling from their beaks? According to the Harley Bestiary (c. 1230-1240), that’s where Barnacle Geese come from!
Or how about bees: did you know that bees come from the decay of the putrid flesh of calves or oxen (Isidore of Seville, 7th century CE)? Some explanations are implausible, others are darn ridiculous, but they were interpretations based on observations made at the time. The prevailing wisdom of the day, according to the bestiaries, was that owls were dirty, slothful birds that pollute their nests with their own dung. Barn owls do build up a layer of pellets in their nests when the young are still in house and feeding, but most birds are pretty good at keeping waste out of their nests. It was common knowledge that owls frequent graveyards and tombs, and their cries are harbingers of an impending death. It’s not a glowing letter of recommendation.
Owls and their portrayal in bestiaries is a whole other post, but these bestiaries were written in the 12th – 16th centuries. Bestiaries were not immune to the prevailing attitudes of the day. Some of these ideas were, well, racist and antisemitic as flock. With the negative interpretations associated with owls, it makes sense that someone with an interest in both the natural and the spiritual world would have a demon appear as a larger-than-life owl, ready to run you down if you lost your nerve during a demon summoning. We can safely say that Collin de Plancy and Friends didn’t actually summon Stolas (or any demon) to pose for a sketch artist. We can chalk up mystic depictions of demonic giant walking owls as a stroll down Imagination and Theology Lane.
The Giant Cuban Owl
Fast forward to Cuba, 1954, where we actually have knowledge of a giant owl. The Cuban Giant Owl Ornimegalonyx was an owl of the Late Pleistocene (126,000 – 11,700 years ago, also known as the Ice Age). Ornimegalonyx was discovered on January 2, 1954 and was recognized as the remains of a large predatory bird. The discovery site was a large cavern called Pio Domingo Cave located in the Sierra de Sumidero, opposite Pica-Pica Valley in Pinar del Rio. Ornimegalonyx was originally described by Oscar Arrendondo (1958) in a publication called El Cartero Cubano. Oscar Arrendondo originally used Ornimegalonyx arrendondoi as a provisional name, and he later uses Ornimegalonyx oteroi as the official name in his 1958 publication describing the type specimen. Arrendondo used the name “oteri” in honor of speleologist (scientists who study caves) and expedition member Juan N. Otero (Arrendondo, 1958). The type material (the bones that everyone has to look at if you want to work on fossilized giant owls) consists of a fragmentary femur (thigh bone), three fragments of a tibiotarsus (shin bone), an incomplete tarsometatarsus (the lower part of the “backwards-looking-knee” of a bird – it’s the same as our ankle), and some toe bones (phalanges).
Original descriptions of Ornimegalonyx have it belonging to the group Phorusrhacidae (also known as “terror birds”) because of the large size. Back in 1958, large owls were not on people’s radar. This small collection of bone fragments doesn’t sound like a lot on which to base the naming of a new critter, but there are parts of owl leg and foot bones that are Classic Owl. Ornimegalonyx was estimated to have stood about 1.1 m (3’7”) tall and likely weighed around 9 kg (20 lbs).
As owls go, Ornimegalonyx (orni = bird; mega = large) lives up to its name. Let’s look at its size in comparison to a fairly well-known and our largest owl alive today, the Eurasian Eagle-owl (Bubo bubo). The leg bones, the femur (thigh bone) plus the tibia (shin bone) plus the metatarsals of an Eurasian Eagle-owl are 10.8 cm, 15.5 cm, and 8.4 cm, respectively. We can estimate the leg length of the Eurasian Eagle-owl (give or take some soft tissue and cartilage) at 34.7 cm (or about 13.6 inches) long. The leg bones of Ornimegalonyx are 15.4 cm, 25.0 cm, and 14.7 cm. The estimated leg length of Ornimegalonyx is 55.1 cm (or 21.7 inches). This is how Arrendondo estimated the height of Ornimegalonyx at about 1.1 meters (3`7”)! Compare that to the height of the Eurasian Eagle-owl at 75 centimeters (around 30 inches). That’s a big owl! Most artistic reconstruction of Ornimegalonyx show a critter similar in shape to a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) due to the long legs and the interpretation that Ornimegalonyx spent more time running and walking than flying.
Was Ornimegalonyx unable to fly like our present-day owls? That’s an interesting question that’s still being examined. It’s definitely not the overall size of Ornimegalonyx that would have kept it grounded. The Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is slightly taller than Ornimegalonyx at about 1.3 meters (4.3 feet tall). It is not even the estimated weight of Ornimegalonyx (uncited at around 9 kilograms) that would have made flying untenable: the Andean Condor weighs in at 15 kilograms.
Ornimegalonyx was not taller than a Secretarybird or heavier than an Andean Condor. Ornimegalonyx may have not been a “feathery death from above” kind of owl, but more of an “I will run you down” owl. Arrendondo (1976) states that the sternum (that’s the breastbone) doesn’t have a large enough keel (the bony projection in the middle of the breastbone) to hold the chest muscles required for a flying bird. Think of carving up the white meat of a turkey breast during the holidays: those are the flapping muscles of the downstroke of the wings, the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor. There’s enough of the sternum preserved of Ornimegalonyx to make a decent reconstruction.
The keel of Ornimegalonyx is not as large as that of a Burrowing Owl or of the similarly-sized Secretarybird. Even vultures have a comparatively larger sternal keel than that of Ornimegalonyx, and vultures are more known for soaring on thermals than for dive-bombing stealthy death from above. Given that Ornimegalonyx didn’t have a lot of room on its breastbone to attach flapping muscles, it likely spent a great deal of time on the ground, terrorizing the Ice Age mammals. However, new specimens and more investigation will shed light on this in the future.
Did Ornimegalonyx Inspire the Idea of Stolas?
Would Collin de Plancy have known about Ornimegalonyx, or preserved remains of creatures that would have inspired visions of demons, when he wrote Dictionnaire Infernal (1818; illustrated version in 1863)? We don’t have any reason to assume Collin de Plancy himself had any knowledge of giant fossil owls. As far as I know, there is no documented contact between Collin de Plancy and Cuba (I’m still looking.)
Theological interpretations of the natural world happened at late as the 1800s. Fossilized meat-eating dinosaur (theropod) footprints were described as the footprints of Noah’s Raven by Elihu Dwight as late as the 1800s. Edward Hitchcock later described these same tracks as those belonging to an extinct bird in the 1830s. Scriptural-based interpretations of natural phenomena were still prevalent when the Dictionnaire was written. Heck: these types of explanations for natural phenomena still happen today, so we really can’t side-eye past historians and naturalists too much if they assumed that demons appeared in owl-form.
The likelihood of Collin de Plancy having heard tell of fossils of Ornimegalonyx, or skeletons of a Stolas-like demon from Spanish colonies is possible. Spanish colonization of Cuba began during the 1492 expeditions, and was briefly colonized by Great Britain in 1762. French colonization of Cuba began in the 18th century and increased into the 19th century. People were aware of fossils during this time. In the 1400s there was recognition that the phenomena that we call fossils were the remains of ancient life. Fossils were even described by Aristotle (348-322 BC) as being once-living organisms that were “petrified.” Unfortunately, I haven’t come across records of pre-1900s discoveries of fossils on Cuba. Columbus was likely aware of amber (http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/p/poinar-amber.html) as amber was used by the indigenous peoples who Columbus viciously exploited on the island of Hispainola. However, it seems unlikely that Columbus would have paid much attention to fossilized animals of Cuba, and there certainly has never been a report of a fossilized giant owl encased in amber.
Just because colonists may not have heard about giant fossil owls doesn’t mean they were unknown. People may have encountered Ornimegalonyx. There are records of people from the Palaeolithic Periods after the Ice Ages (Guanahatabey and Siboney cultures) living in Cuba.
It’s not often we have a real-life version of a mythical character such as Stolas. It doesn’t “prove” that Stolas is the real deal, or that owls represent demons. We still have a lot of work to do to shake off some of the negative associations people have with wildlife. Wolves, bats, owls, ravens, vultures: these are animals that are still associated with hunting, death, night, and evil doings. These animals are not evil: it’s only our associations and biases that interprets them as such. The more we learn about how wonderfully complex our natural world is the easier it will be (I hope) to exorcise the demons of our biases from these misunderstood animals.
Arrendondo 1958. Aves gigantes de nuestro pasado prehistorico: El Cartero Cubano, v. 17, no. 7 (July), p. 10-12, unnumbered text-figs.
Live nest cam season is here (and sadly it is now past: too many major life changes happened that put this blog post on hold)! Nest cams are windows into the wonderful world of a very important time in the lives of our present-day theropods: mate interactions, nesting, brooding, and raising young.
Besides being completely fascinating, watching owls (and hawks, and osprey, and albatross) nest and raise young is that we know that Cretaceous theropods also courted their mates (1), constructed nests, laid eggs, and cared for their young. Here’s a link to an earlier blog post where I cover theropod nesting, brooding, and determining the sex of a theropod: http://birdsinmud.blogspot.com/2017/04/theropods-or-tender-pods-softer-side-of.html There is a lot that we can learn about the lives of extinct theropods by studying our present day theropods!
Other than the previous blog post on the tender side of theropods where I link to owl nest cams I realized, while watching the Barred Owl snooze in her next box, that I have never written about owls as their own topic.
So let’s talk about owls! I want to do a series of blog posts that highlight all that is fascinating about owls – I find everything about owls fascinating, so who knows how many posts this will be!
To start our conversation about owls we have to start at the beginning, which means we’ll be looking at the fossil history of owls!
Owl Features…In Bones
To talk about owls we have to talk about what features make owls what they are. If we don’t know what makes an owl an owl, we can’t figure out when owls first evolved. I’m only going to talk about owls as we recognize them from their skeletons because that’s what we have to work with as palaeontologists.
Owls belong to an order of birds called Strigiformes. This term was first coined by Wagler in 1830. To get into Club Strigiformes, you’d have to have the following characteristics:
Large, round, front-facing eyes (can fossilize),
Bony ring in the eye socket (sclerotic ring) is a solid, elongate tube (can fossilize),
Eyes in a circular or heart-shaped disk of radiating feathers (not skeletal),
Relatively large head (can fossilize),
Holes in the neck vertebrae where the arteries run through are about 10X the size of the artery (can fossilize),
Sharply hooked beaks (can fossilize, but shared with other birds of prey),
Hooked talons (can fossilize, but shared with other birds of prey), and
Feathers with serrated edges to reduce noise in flight (not skeletal).
Those are very general characteristics of an owl’s body. When we get down to the nitty-gritty of “How do I know my fossil bird is an owl?” we are dealing with parts of a bird skeleton that are more likely to fossilize than others. Skulls, with their thin braincases and thin bony struts, may not fossilize well (but it does happen). Bones that are relatively more sturdy, typically limb bones, have a better chance at fossilizing. This is why many of the oldest owl fossils are just that: limb bones or parts of limb bones. The most common limb bone of fossilized early owls that shows up in the scientific literature is one of my favorite bones, the tarsometatarsus.
If you picture a bird leg, you are probably familiar with the “backward knee” look that they have. That “backward knee” isn’t the knee at all: that’s the equivalent of our angle joint between the tibiotarsus and the tarsometatarsus. Remember those “if dogs wore pants” memes that circulated a few years ago? Well, if birds (and extinct theropod dinosaurs) wore shoes, they would look something like this:
The tarsometatarsus is one of my favorite bones in a bird skeleton because there’s a lot of identifying information in the area where the tarsometatarsus connects to the tibia and where the toes connect to the tarsometatarsus. I focused on the tarsometatarsus of shorebirds for my doctoral thesis because I wanted to understand the link between footprint shape and foot bones. [Results in progress.]
One of the obvious features of a bird of prey tarsometatarsus is the huge roller surfaces of the distal end – where the toes attach. Birds of prey are a lot like their extinct meat-eating dinosaur cousins: they do a lot of their prey catching with their feet. Those toes gotta be able to grip it good, so the roller surfaces are nice and robust. Check out the tarsometatarsus of a Bald Eagle.
Now, check out the tarsometatarus of a Great Horned Owl! Do you see the one roller surface – the outer roller – that is twisted?
This is a bony feature of a special owl foot trait, called the zygodactyl foot. Check out the feet of the Eurasian Eagle Owl coming in for a landing. Do you see how the outer toe is facing more backward than forwards? That’s a zygodactyl owl foot.
Even long-legged owls like the Burrowing Owl have a fourth/outer roller surface that is twisted!
One feature that diurnal (active in the daytime) predatory birds have is a built-in sun-visor over each eye. This sun-visor is called the supraorbital process. In diurnal birds this ridge can be very pronounced, but in nocturnal birds this visor is smaller. In diurnal owls (Great Horned Owls are an example) the ridge is well-developed!
In the Boreal Owl skull, we don’t see that bony sun visor: the edge of the upper eye socket is rounded and smooth. But check out those asymmetrical ear openings! This feature allows sound to come into the owl’s ears at two different levels, giving the owl precision targeting of small furry/feathery/fluttery prey. If you’re hunting at night, you need to pull out all the tricks to get a tasty meal!
These are two out of MANY features that make an owl an owl if all you find is the skeleton. That’s what we deal with when we talk about fossil owls.
Fossil Record of Owls: The Wise Oldest Owl
You might find this surprising, but owls have been around for a long time! We don’t yet have any definite owls from the Cretaceous Period, but in the time immediately after the Cretaceous – Paleogene extinction (when non-birdy dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago) owls are there! This suggests that owls – or very early versions of owls – may have evolved in the latest Cretaceous Period (2). Why is this? It’s because the “owly” features are fairly well-developed, and bony features take time to evolve in groups of animals.
That’s not to say that people haven’t thought they had evidence of Cretaceous owls. Bradycneme draculae (3) was described by Harrison and Walker in 1975 from the Maastrichtian (70 – 66 million years ago) age deposits of Transylvania (yes, they went there.) Following the description of Bradycneme as a Cretaceous owl, many researchers started to compare the end of the tibia (that’s the shin bone) to bones of theropod dinosaurs. It is very likely that Bradycneme is actually a funky little theropod called an alvarezsaurid (4).
Here’s an image of Patagonychus, an alvarezsaurid. Check out the wee little arms!
Our first Wise Oldest Owl comes from the lower Paleocene deposits of Colorado, USA (Tiffanian: 60.2 – 56.8 million years ago). Ogygoptynx wetmorei is known as a “protostrigid:” it’s really really close to being an owl it’s scary, and it has features that are seen in both typical owls (like Great Horned Owls) and the Barn Owl kind of owl. Ogygoptynx is known from a tarsometatarsus (5).
Our next Wise Oldest Owl is Berruornis, which comes from the upper Paleocene deposits (59 – 56 million years ago) of the Reims area of northeast France. Berruornis is known from – surprise! – a nice sturdy tarsometatarsus! One of the owly features of Berruornis is seeing the fourth distal tarsometatarsus – the roller surface – starting to get that zygodactyl twist! Berruornis fossils are also found from the Late Paleocene rocks in Germany.
This kickstarts my blog series on OWLS! The next post will focus on one fossil owl in particular…and this owl has some interesting mythological connections! Stay tuned!
1. Lockley MG, McCrea RT, Buckley LG, Lim JD, Matthews NA, Houck KJ, Gierliński GD, Surmik D, Kim KS, Xing L, Kong DY, Cart K, Martin J, Hadden G. 2016. Theropod courtship: large scale physical evidence of display arenas and avian-like scrape ceremony behavior by Cretaceous dinosaurs. Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 18952 (2016)
2. Harrison CJO, Walker CA. 1975. The Bradycnemidae, a new family of owls from the Upper Cretaceous of Romania. Palaeontology 18(3): 563-570.
3. Naish D, Gareth J. 2004. Heptasteornis was no ornithomimid, troodontid, dromaeosaurid or owl: the first alvarezsaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from Europe. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie Monatshefte 7: 385-401.
4. Kurochin EN, Dyke GJ. 2011. The first fossil owls (Aves: Strigiformes) from the Paleogene of Asia and a review of the fossil record of Strigiformes. Paleontological Journal 45(4): 445-458.
5. Vickers-Rich P, Bohaska DJ. 1981. The Ogygoptyngidae, a new family of owls from the Paleocene of North America. Alcheringa 5(2): 95-102.
6. Mourer-Chauvire C. 1994. A large owl from the Palaeocene of France. Palaeontology 37: 339-348.
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted: there have been Things (TM) with which I have had to deal (and as with most Things they are Not Without Ordeal), but I now find myself with some time to return to sharing what I find interesting and fascinating and just plain cool with you, such as my planned series on All Things Owl.
Or so I thought. If you’ve been on Twitter during the last couple of days, you may have been exposed to Discovery Channel’s latest promo. I link it here for your review.
Did you notice anything? More specifically, what did you not notice? If your answer was “Hey, that promo seems to feature only dudes,” then you noticed what many of my science and science communicator colleagues have noticed: Discovery is A-OK with only men (and predominantly white men) saying that #TheWorldIsOurs.
The initial reaction was for people to point out to Discovery that there are MANY people in the sciences other than mostly white men (who were doing very little science in that promo, let’s be honest) that could be featured and promoted by Discovery if they so choose.
This has happened before. A large platform company like Discovery promotes a very narrow view of who is A Science/Exploration Authority, and we in the actual science community respond by sharing and promoting who we think should be promoted for a change. However, we end up repeating the same cycle anywhere from six months to a year later when the next promotion comes around, and during all of that time we don’t see any noticeable change in who Discovery and similar large platforms choose to deliver their content.
Nothing seems to change.
This is where this morning’s Twitter thread comes into play. I noticed that there have been a few comments with regards to the Dudescovery promotion along these lines:
“If you want to see more representation in science communication, be the change you want to see and do it yourself, and then it will happen!”
LRT: Thankfully I haven’t seen too many comments of “Gee, if you want to see more underrepresented people in science on TV etc, just make your own videos and make it happen!” wrt the Dudescovery promo, but I have seen a couple. Let’s look at some issues with that line of thought.
There are several glaring issues with this theme of comment, and because of these issues, we will continue to see Dudescovery promotions from large platforms.
Issue 1. Underrepresented and Under-promoted People Are Already Creating Discovery-Level Content.
1. We’re already doing it, and have been for YEARS.
If you haven’t noticed, it’s not bc people haven’t been putting out their own content: it’s that the content they produce isn’t promoted or sought out by Big Platforms. Who you highlight – or don’t highlight – speaks volumes.
If you have not noticed or have not been exposed to science communication content created and delivered by people underrepresented on the big platforms that is both educational and entertaining, it is not because that content does not exist. Quite the contrary. Scientists and science communicators from underrepresented groups have been creating this content for years. If you, someone who the large communication platforms want to attract as viewers, haven’t seen this content it is not because it does not exist. It is because large communication platforms like Discovery Channel choose not to promote or elevate this content. It’s not an accident or an oversight (how can it be simply a matter of oversight when they are reminded each and every time they make these apparent oopsies?) It’s a choice.
These large platforms can choose not to address this bias they have when it comes to promoting underrepresented people because there is still a pervasive bias in the public that…
2. Underrepresented Groups in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Are Still Expected to Fix Problems They Did Not Create.
The “just make your own content” comments place the burden of fixing representation on large communication platforms on the very people who are already not being promoted or supported by these platforms.
2. Underrepresented groups in STEM are STILL expected to fix problems they absolutely did not create.
Yes, this is about who we as a society have been conditioned to view as experts because historically those were the people who set up the system & who has power in it.
Large platforms have, for decades, promoted who they view as An Authority on their programs. These platforms have a long reach. We as the public have, for years, been conditioned to have a very narrow view of who we view and respect as An Authority. It’s no coincidence that the Venn Diagram of “Who Is Traditionally Viewed As An Authority” and “Who Were The People Who Set Up the Foundation of Our Current Science System” is basically a large white circle.
Who Discovery chose to promote in their Dudescovery promotion was no coincidence. The Adventure Scientist Explorer trope (think Indiana Jones) has been promoted for decades by these platforms. Exploration as we know it, and as we have it portrayed to us by media, is rooted in Western European colonialist idealism. We still have this idealism portrayed by large communication platforms, and the public accepts this because it’s what we’ve been taught is normal. It is not.
Who sets up the system sets up who the public sees as the experts. But who exactly is The Public to these large Discovery-level platforms?
3. Large Communication Platforms Don’t See the Entire Public as Their Public.
3. Big Platforms don’t see the entire public as their public.
The Big Platforms are providing visible experts that a very specific part of the population can relate to, can see themselves in or as similar to. It’s people like them. They think of their base AS THE BASIS.
Discovery-esque platforms speak to what and who they know, and who they know are people exactly like them. Those are the people they relate to, so they treat their narrow view of what their audience is as the Standard. Anything that does not conform to this standard is Other, and therefore not their concern. They are A-OK alienating the rest of the population because their narrow view of who their target audience is doesn’t complain.
To then say “Make your own content” is telling underrepresented groups to fix this problem on their own after being told for years “Oh sorry, there’s just no appetite for that kind of content.”
Which brings me to the fourth point.
4. Underrepresented Groups Are Expected to Fix This Problem For Free.
“Just do it yourself” comments are blatantly ill-informed on how much darn work it takes to do a Discovery-style version of science communication. The science-exploration hosts we see promoted by Discovery-style platforms are supported with resources, people, and money. However, underrepresented people are expected to do the same level of work in the absence of such support. This brings us to the fifth point…
5. Underrepresented Groups Are Still Expected to “Prove Themselves” and “Prove That They Belong.”
How often have we heard some version of “Oh, if there’s an appetite for seeing X as an expert, they’ll create their own following AND THEN they’ll get noticed!” This is pretty steep coming from platforms that are set up to create followings for the people they choose to promote.
I find this “prove yourself” mentality quite distasteful: it reeks of “separate yet equal” nonsense that should have been discarded in the rubbish bin decades ago. The “just do it yourself” people are – whether they know it or not – supporting the message sent by large platforms to the rest of the science communication world. That message is “Make your own following because we don’t value or respect who you speak to and who you represent.”
This is a system that brings us to the sixth point…
6. Created Contempt for Underrepresented Creators.
Not only are underrepresented creators expected to do the work of large platform hosts with no support from the platforms they do have access to, such as blogs and YouTube for dealing with abuse.
Anything that is perceived as different from what the large platforms have promoted – and given their stamp of approval to – is treated as “politics” or a “stunt.” It’s not viewed as what it really is, which is an attempt to address the cavernous void of who is not represented by these platforms. The public has been taught to NOT respect the non-platform experts. For example: have you ever read YouTube comments on videos created by and featuring women? That’s a symptom of a systemic problem of who the public has been taught to respect as an expert.
So rather than placing the burden of increasing visibility on those who are systematically not supported by Big Platforms, do the world a favor and demand that the Big Platforms change. Promote creators you respect to them – they’re already there. Be consistent and persistent. Squeak that wheel. Squeak it with your voice and your wallet. Show them that who speaks for science and discovery matters to you.
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.
So…who would want to read a blog post about my laser eye surgery? While not directly “my science,” it is something that I did to improve my ability to do #ichnology#fieldwork.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I get a bit cranky when I hear/read “Hey, I’d totes pay $$ to spend time w the palaeontologists!” I don’t think many view what we do as WORK
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.
I understand ppl want to have experience of exploration & discovery, but when it comes to our specific fieldwork it’s NOT “as seen on TV”
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.
However, the fieldwork that my colleague and I do is NOT amenable to adventure tourism for a variety of logistical, financial, and practical reasons.
I’ll break down why we, as palaeontologists, would make lousy “attractions” for tourists.
1. We have no sites that are paintbrush friendly.
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.
WE get frustrated with it. Our Turonian site: bone is consistency of shaker cheese, rock is concrete. ALL air scribe work. ALL stress.
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.
That’s when we actually find a site. Prospecting for dinosaurs in BC IS BLOODY HARD WORK. No, not “I worked out hard at the gym hard”. HARD.
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.
KMs of beaverdams & bogs
MOSQUITOES & DEERFLIES
BIG FUZZY SCARED/ANGRY/DEFENSIVE CRITTERS
Hands & knees steep hills
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).
Oh, and “hey, let’s take a break and admire the scenery”? LOL NO. We have a short field season, and A LOT of unsurveyed ground to cover.
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.
How about our being caught in HUGE thunder&lightening storm in the alpine. NOWHERE was safe. Spent 3hrs under guide tarp as hell rained down
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.”
Edited out of TV palaeo:
The grumpies (we all get them)
More time spent looking than finding.
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.
4. Injuries Happen
My accumulated injuries are:
A permanently damaged hip flexor
30% corneal scrape
SO MANY SCARS
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.
Climbing beyond their comfort zone.
Lifting something too heavy for them.
Rushing when using a pick & hammer.
BLOOD OWIES ALL OF THEM.
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:
Bad field ‘tudes include:
Acting like you know it all (when you don’t – I’ve seen this damage fossils)
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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:
SVP urges @Artcurial to reconsider and cancel the sale of scientifically important dinosaur skeletons. Scientifically important vertebrate fossils are part of our collective natural heritage and deserve to be held in public trust. pic.twitter.com/4EYZ46uZY2
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.