Friday, July 31, 2009

Another week in paradise

This week has marked a milestone in the project. After nearly five weeks of laboring under heavy skulls of equids and their relatives, we have completed the third floor types and we are starting to rehouse the specimens in the dungeon. We may be working in paradise, but that does not mean it is smooth-water sailing. This week produced a number of "non-type" specimens impersonating types, several "stowaways" and one specimen that is so big it has to be rehoused in the cabinet drawer in lieu of in the cardboard boxes most specimens are housed in. This specimen includes skull, jaws, skeletal bones and fragments that all must be housed in a single drawer. With limited space in the cabinets there is no choice to split the specimen between two drawers, as we have seen with several other specimens in our time here.

We have also learned about “manuscript types”, which are types that have not been published, but have been described in a manuscript. These lucky specimens were rehoused even though they are not types.

Finishing the third floor has provided a new energy throughout the group. From here we turn to the lower level (That’s the dungeon to us.) where we will be working with some different critters than the horses that will be haunting our dreams for years to come. We have broken away from the Perissodactyls and are moving on to the Artiodactyls. The lower level holds Cervidae (deer) and Moschidae (musk deer). The big cart that Carl provided for us will come in handy more now than ever as the trip to the lower level will take a significant amount of time.

Georeferencing/Element Description
With a few personal triumphs for some of the group, our progress in both Georeferencing and Element Description is coming along nicely. We are becoming more confident with each passing week, as we are grinding through the lists. Teamwork is proving to be a strong suit in this group as those who are already finished with their chunk of the lists are now helping those who had been given additional tasks.

We have had some luck tracking down some of the localities in Mongolia, which has been a thorn in our paw since the beginning of the project. We have located maps and manuscripts that help us find the localities we’re looking for.

With fingers, toes, and eyes crossed, we are hoping to be done with Element Description in the next week or two!

What is this, a school for ants?
This week we toured through the exhibits department with Dina Langis. She showed us several different stages of the planning process for upcoming exhibits. We saw floor plans, both beginning and end process models, and full-scale pieces that are being used in the actual exhibits.

Seeing the models was particularly interesting as it provided several perspectives and stages each exhibit goes through before being finalized and built in the gallery. Exhibits change many times from conception to the opening. There was a rough model of an upcoming exhibit about polar exploration, and a finished model of the Silk Road exhibit which is being built now.

In the idea room, pictures, thoughts, and concepts are pinned up on bulletin boards to promote creative thinking and ideas. All along the wall were pictures for the upcoming Silk Road, Polar Exploration, and The Brain exhibits.

The Silk Road exhibit, which is currently being built has some very cool pieces. A full-sized camel is being sculpted, and fake fruit now looks good enough to eat.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Whooo We're Half Way There....

Meeting Our Quota
This week we are continuing to work at a steady pace in order to tackle the type specimen rehousing project. Although we are making substantial progress every day, we have decided that setting a daily quota for ourselves would immensely help us to reach our goal within the remaining four weeks.

Using a large flat bed cart that Carl lent us as well as some spare carts, we were able to move many specimens at once to our work space. The carts full of specimens act as a visual reminder to help us with managing our time throughout the day. It's also reassuring to see the carts with specimens that have been successfully rehoused, these completed specimens provide us with motivation and a sense of accomplishment.

Georeferencing and Element Descriptions
Georeferencing continues to be a daunting yet exciting task for all of us. Everyone’s pace is dependent on the difficulty of their locality; the localities that threaten to break our one hour rule include Mongolia, India, and Pakistan. Through this entire process we have come across some interesting localities that prove just how old our collection is, like USSR and Persia for example. With each week we are finding out just how useful the card catalogues are, even the smallest amount of information can be the missing link in our difficult search. In the unfortunate case that the card does not contain any more information we realize that only a certain amount of time can be spent on the location of each specimen, and so we move on.

Element descriptions are a repetitive but rather necessary task. Most of us are over half way through our assigned drawers, and feel confident that we are close to completing this part of the summer project.

Tour of the Ornithology Department

The Department of Ornithology here at the AMNH has the largest collection of bird skins (meaning the skin and feathers) in the world. It seems that this collection could hardly be lacking much. Here we were given the privilege of seeing Bald Eagles, Elf Owls which were miniature in comparison to the Giant Eagle Owls, Toucans, Hornbills and many more.

Evolutionary biology seems to be a large aspect of the Ornithology collection. A clear depiction of this can be seen in the dramatically beautiful colorings of these sparrows from Mexico and South America; each color representing a different geographic region.

One of the most interesting things that Dr. Sweet brought to our attention was the shallow pits found in the ulna of birds. These ridges or pits indicate where a series of quills had once been attached to the bone.

During our tour we were able to see an artist paint detailed images of birds for a field guide, using not much more than the skins from the collection. Further along the hidden staircases and long corridors we came across the osteo prep lab for the Ornithology Department. Similar to the tour of the Mammology Department, we also had the pleasure of experiencing Ornithology's alcohol room. Instead of three large Apes, this time we saw three large preserved Casuaries. During the tour we were lucky enough to see the Audubon room (which is temporarily closed to the public), an extremely beautiful room exhibiting original paintings by John James Audubon and his sons. At the far end of the Audubon room we came upon a room containing bird nests and eggs, many of which were stored in vintage containers like old chocolate boxes, old battery boxes, and shotgun shell boxes.

Although the content of the ornithology collection may differ from that of the paleontology collection, there are quite a few things that we have in common. The numerous volumes of localities, and the process they use to organize their data is very similar to what we have seen here in the Vertebrate Paleo. Department.

On Friday during rehousing we worked on our first rodent and first carnivore... an exciting change from the usual horse skull. With each day it becomes easier and easier to solve unique problems. In some cases new drawers must be made in order to maximize the amount of storage space in the cabinets. We have come across some interesting specimens that have been listed as both holotypes and genotypes or sometimes even cotypes... but with the help of Carl we have sorted out most of these issues. Slowly but surely we are bringing ourselves up to date with all of the different type lingo. Our confidence grows each week regarding the progress we have made so far, setting a pace that is consistent and allows for us to produce quality work. Everyone has developed their own techniques which are all working extremely well. By the end of this week we successfully rehoused the intended number of specimens and are confident that our pace will steadily increase.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Real Deal

This past Monday we began our first post-training week and settled into the schedule we will have the rest of the summer - rehousing on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, georeferencing on Tuesday, and elements descriptions on Thursday.

As we become more familiar with rehousing and fossil handling techniques, we're settling into a solid pace of pulling, rehousing and returning a few cart-fulls of specimens to the collections each day. We completed nearly 50 rehousings during the past week.

One highlight was figuring out, with guidance from Carl and Ivy, what to do with the tray of bones set in a large plaster block that we'd mentioned in the previous blog post. Such an arrangement is known as a plaque mount and is intended for display. Since the plaster block is far too large to fit in any of the boxes we have (it takes up nearly the entire drawer), we used tri-rod to stabilize it in the drawer, and if we come across such a mount where parts of the fossil are raised above the top of the tray, we'll make a choroplast riser to protect the bones from other trays scraping on top of them.

A second challenge that arose came not from a fossil, but from a fossils' documentation. Some specimens had notes with them written on newspaper over 100 years old - the oldest so far is from 1898. To keep these notes - which have become pretty tattered - from further deteriorating, we used archival quality tape to mend rips and reinforce any part that seemed prone to tears.

We’re making a big dent in the type collection - or it certainly feels that way. The process is going much more smoothly and we’re continuing to find our niches.

Georeferencing: Where in the world?
On Tuesday we had a briefing with Chelsea about our first round of georeferencing from the week before. We got the chance to ask her about any problems we had run into and also share any helpful hints we'd figured out during our first batch of localities. Since the objective of georeferencing is to take information about the location of a specimen's origin given by the excavator and plot it on a current map - we need to find the country, state/region, and county/division of the excavation site.

One challenge we ran into is that some territorial boundaries have changed since the fossils were excavated. For example, we were working on a locality listed as "Bugti, India" - excavated in 1923 - and weren't making much progress until we figured out that the excavation took place in what is today Pakistan.

The card catalog turned out to be one of out greatest assets in narrowing down options for a given locality. Cards often contain additional notes about the site, such as nearby towns, major roadways or alternate spellings. The first card pictured here is a georeferencing dream come true, containing both a street map on the front and a geological map on the back. Others, like the one pictured below, provide less help, but in such cases we can turn to field notes and other sources.

We divided up the remainder of the master list of localities amongst ourselves. After filling in the territorial information, we'll go back and find the latitude and longitude - using field notes, shipping record, and Google Earth. We'll have plenty more questions for Chelsea when we get to that stage.

What's that smell? Thursday's Tour

After continuing our work on element descriptions, our Thursday tour of the Vertebrate Zoology Osteology Prep Lab lead by Dr. Neil Duncan, Supervisor, turned out to be quite the olfactory experience. Dr. Duncan showed us how he reduces fleshy dead carcases, sent to him by many various departments in the museum, into clean sets of ready-to-study bones.

One technique is performed int the degreasing and maseration room - where bones are submerged in water and left to rot over time in their own juices, go bacteria!

Although that may have sounded icky when Dr. Duncan first described it to us, that process pales in comparison to what goes on in the 'bug room.' Specimens are placed in tubs with thousands of flesh-eating beetles, pictured below on the skeleton of a fish. These little guys get the job done and can clean some small skeletons in less than a day. But be careful not to leave a specimen in there too long - they'll eat the bones if they get hungry. Dr. Duncan also has to worry about keeping the beetles contained. In a museum with taxidermied animals on display and in collections, a beetle escape could reek havoc. The beetle tubs are equipped with lids and there is a layer of glue sealing of the gap under the door to serve as a second line of defense.

Lastly, Dr. Duncan showed us the room where whale bones are stored. Like the collections we saw on the mammology tour last week, this was another example of how modern and paleontology collections have the same issues when dealing with space for specimens, especially large ones such as those from large animals like the blue whale. Finally, we got to go into the fridge at a chilly -4’F temperature that's used to preserve
carcases before they go to the bugs.

A whale skull and vertebrae from this week's tour -

large specimens such as these require special attention in moving and storage.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Not for the Squeamish!

We began our week at our computers with our continued work of element descriptions. We’ve started the actual description part of the data entry and are slowly working our way through the numerous abbreviations and terminology. We are learning that the most important part in building a database is consistency.

On Tuesday we were introduced to Chelsea, a former intern from last summer, who is the queen of georeferencing. She introduced us to the many ways of retrieving data to fill in the multiple gaps that make up the locality information. Chelsea explained that there are many outlets for finding information. These include anything from Google Earth to Paleocat, and even the more formal sources like journal articles and various books. She encouraged us to utilize the archives at the AMNH and if needed to be creative when looking for locality data. By the afternoon we were working on our individual tasks of finding country, state, and county when given only the locality name. This task seemed daunting at first, especially when the locality said only “Alaska”, however, we were told to keep our scope in mind and not to be discouraged…you can’t get every one.

The middle of the week brought our final re-housing training with Ivy. She gave us an introduction to proper labeling techniques. She explained the differences between holotype and genotype labels (holotype: specific level type specimen and genotype: generic level type specimen) and how to go about writing citations. We also learned about mylar and how it’s used to preserve and protect labels. We also discussed how to fill out c

ondition reports for each specimen that we are re-housing. After this, we were officially on our own to pull, re-house, label, and replace each specimen. Teamwork is an ever

important theme.

Thursday the students turned into the teachers! With Ivy gone, it was now our turn to train Carl…not that he needed a lot of training. Our task was to teach him everything we had learned up to this point. He proved to be an excellent student, taking notes the entire time. After his lesson, he left us to our own and we continued our re-housing. The afternoon brought our first department tour of the Mammalogy department. The tour was given by the Collections Manager, Dr. Darrin Lunde.

You may ask what we saw on this tour… indeed we saw mammals but we also got a glimpse of the long history the AMNH has to offer. We were shown the original library, the attic turret that faces 77th street, the alcohol room (not what it sounds like, these are specimens preserved in alcohol), along with the bones from elephant, hippo, and other mammals. Dr. Lunde talked about the different management techniques that mammalogists encounter in comparison to vertebrate paleontologists. We were surprised to learn that each department, while different, has many similarities when overcoming obstacles.

We ended the week with continued re-housing. Our first major complication arose while pulling specimens we uncovered fossils embedded in plaster that took up the space of an entire drawer. Unfortunately there won’t be any room to re-house them traditionally, so our creativity comes into play once again. More to come on this issue!

We’re gradually becoming more comfortable in our abilities to create these re-housing boxes, and the process is starting to go much more smoothly!

Below are before and after re-housing shots!

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Beginning of the End

After the grueling process of getting our badges and finding our way through the maze that is the twenty plus buildings that make up the American Museum of Natural History, we found ourselves at the doorstep to fossil heaven...the Vertebrate Paleontology Department. Following our teaser tour of halls we will soon become familiar with - and promises of a more in depth tour later, we began our meet and greet with some of the lab and collections staff who we will meet more formally in the coming weeks. In the afternoon, we got the grand tour of the big bone room and fossil fish collection as well as a handling demonstration of fossils from Jeanne Kelly. We were taught the proper techniques on how to pick up, move, and handle type specimens, as well as how to approach other situations regarding our safety - and the fossils - that we may run into while working in the collections. Following our safety lessons, we set up our computer stations to ready ourselves for our day to day work in the upcoming weeks.
On Tuesday morning we met Ivy the Collections Manager of Fossil Fish and the Frick Mammal Collection loan guru. After testing our geometric and engineering skills we managed to set up six work stations in a relatively small area. We realized this will be the only time it will be clean, but we're very proud of our puzzle solving skills - seven heads are better than one and sometimes an eighth!

Cue dramatic music ** and then there was ethafoam. ** We were then enlightened by Ivy about the importance and archival properties of ethafoam. We were then encouraged to become ethafoam ninjas by trial and error but as Ivy says there really is no error, just things she can and will use later in order to send out loans. We lovingly put these "good attempts" into the fail box. We were also introduced to our current frenemy mr. glue gun and feel that the next seven weeks will be a love / hate relationship. Overall, Tuesday was a test to our problem solving skills and we think we did an ok job!

Wednesday was very similar to Tuesday. We were with Ivy and she had us practice specimen moving, label writing, and we had an introduction to the last part of box assembly which includes a shield of cloroplast. Her motto echoed throughout the day, "as tall as necessary as small as possible." We then used trirod, a close relative of ethafoam, to sculpt around a specimen in order to create a secure environment for the specimens so that it may pass the wiggle test. . The day ended with us pulling and picking out our first specimens for the rehousing project.

On Thursday we got a tutorial from Ruth on how to type in element descriptions using excel. We also received a brief introduction to Paleocat, a customized database designed for students and researchers in the field. We are taking the original verbatim card catalog descriptions of the specimens and creating titles that researchers can quickly access to locate their specimens of interest. We will then reformat the descriptions so that there is some sort of consistency throughout the database. We are quickly picking up the paleo-lingo with help from Ruth and Chloe.

That about sums up our first week of training and practice - now its time to explore the city in search for 4th of July festivities.