Birds In Mud

Selling Fossils: Heritage for the Elite

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

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

The Red Flags of the Brochure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Issue Is One of Ethics and Underfunded Museums

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

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

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

Not how this works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Birds In Mud

It’s OK To Like The Mandarin Duck!

(…But Do It Responsibly!)

Hello Dear Readers!

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

Isn’t this duck glorious?

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

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

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

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

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

Issues with the Mandarin Duck: Wildlife Harassment

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

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

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

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

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

The Mandarin Duck as a “Plastic” Sighting

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

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

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

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

HARASS.

WILDLIFE.

What Can We Do About The Mandarin Duck?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bird Tracks in the Classroom, Prologue

Hello Dear Readers!

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

The Fledgling Idea

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

So I started thinking…

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

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

Project Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

Birds In Mud

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

Hello Dear Readers!

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

THANK YOU!

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

How Does It Work?

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

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

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

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

I’m Totally Voting! What Do You Win?

Bragging rights!

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

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

What Have I Written?

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

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

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

Birds In Mud

How To Make Bird Track Casts

Hello, Dear Readers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I do is make plaster replicas of bird tracks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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