Tuesday 31 July 2007

Dinosaur Provincial Park

Back from the Badlands
After our visit to the Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum, my hunger for more fossils grew. I wanted to see bigger ones, jutting out of rock. I'd heard about Dinosaur Provincial Park even as a kid, (didn't the Polka Dot Door do an episode once?) I wen hoping to see a parasaurolophus skull grinning out of the sandy matrix.

It was a long and beautiful drive out from Calgary. All of the sudden, the lightly rolling hills drop away, and we were in the Badlands proper.

We'd just made it, and hopped on board the 24-seater painted schoolbus, and our guide Eric sprayed misty water on us, claiming it was air conditioning.

He drove out to one of his two favourite spots, and as we got off the bus, he pointed out a femur in the dirt parking spot. It seemed so staged just laying there right where he parked the bus. Boy, was I wrong! We all sat down on some banana-coloured pieces of foam. There was a brief group lesson, everyone looking at small fossils of the kind we were likely to see. Crocodile teeth, scutes from crocodiles or euplocephalosaurus, herbivore teeth, femurs and a great many more.

We swore the One Finger Oath, and were shown how to do the lick-test to identify fossil bone. If you lick your finger, and press it hard against a suspected fossil, the tiny pores in the stony bone will create suction. We walked a few more paces, and the fossils were literally littering the ground underfoot. The picture at left shows a breathtaking lichen encrusted stone sitting on shattered manganese. The stone is likely a fossil, but it was so pretty I didn't lick my finger to test it out.

Our guide Eric was terrific. He spent a lot of time with the children, who eagerly tried to show off to him what they had found in a constant stream. Finding a large shattered femur, bulbous and amazing, I wanted to show off to him too, and grabbed his attention for a few moments. As I'd pass by, wandering on our little exploratory hill, I heard him say one of my favourite phrases for a scientist; "Wow. I don't know what that is, but I'm gonna have to find out". He said it more than once. This is education, kids.

This was one of the most incredibly exalting experiences I've ever had, just exploring this hill in a tiny section of the park. At right is another exposed femur, possibly some kind of hadrosaur. Could it be the parasaurolophus I had sought? It could. Nearby was a covered, partially-excavated spine and ribcage for our viewing pleasure.

Dinosaur Provincial Park is also famous for its centrosaurus beds. Centrosaurus, a ceratopsian with a very pretty head-shield can be found in abundance.

The park is an offshoot of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and more excavated wonders awaited us inside. The displays were heavy on information, and uncompromisingly scientific. Exhausted, the day only half gone by, it was the morning of a lifetime. The thrill of amateur, touristic discovery was rewarding and left me flush with wonder.

Monday 23 July 2007

In Strange Company: strangemag.com

I noticed while pursuing that vainest of pastimes, googling myself, that I was quoted on a site called strangemag.com. I hadn't come across this online 'zine before, and it's...umm, weird. Or odd. Unusual. A little different, yes.

It seems to be a mixed bag. The subject matter is credulous; everything from 'giantology' and smoking chimpanzees to UFO's and the pterodactyl 'Thunderbird'. Then it shifts, and often is debunking what it finds, playing the skeptic. I've come rather late to this magazine, as strangemag.com's founder, Mark Chorvinsky, has passed away in recent years. Seems like an interesting guy.

It prompted me to look up the term, "Fortean". I had seen the Fortean Times on magazine racks, and thought it kind of New Age-hokey. It seems there is a bit of a poke-in-the-eye attitude toward scientists, mixed with a different sort of skepticism than you see in Skeptic magazine. A quote from Fortean founder Charles Fort (at right) on Wikipedia: "Now there are so many scientists who believe in dowsing, that the suspicion comes to me that it may be only a myth after all". The Skeptic's Dictionary, always one of my favourite places, has an entry on Charles Fort as well.

The quote from my blog was from my posting about palaeontologist Dong Zhiming educating some Chinese rural folk who believed dinosaur fossils were really medicinal dragon bones. It feels somewhat strange for a person like myself, trying to be rational and understanding the scientific method to be quoted on a site near articles on Bigfoot. But what I've read so far shows these journalists are showing a healthy dose of skepticism and tracking their sources, as wild as the claims are.

It's interesting that skepticism falls along a spectrum rather than a discrete definition. But perhaps that's a scientific simile.

Saturday 21 July 2007

Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum

Back From the Badlands

While staying at a gorgeous cabin with an amazing view near Pincher Creek, Alberta, this Ontario-born blogger got to see a local treat. Spying an ad in a five year old tourist-attraction booklet, we called ahead to see if the Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum was still open for business. It boasted Canada's largest collection of cephalopods. I just had to go.

On the way there, we speculated what it would be like. It sounded like a small collection, and I wondered if it would be in someone's living room. I was wrong. At the time we arrived we were the only visitors. And we stumbled into an insidious Garden Gnome Invasion. They were everywhere! My heart raced at the thought of seeing fossilized remains of early gnominids. Painting ideas were coming to mind.

The gentlemen and collector greeted us out in the winding, tree-lined front yard, obviously in league with the garden gnomes all around. Being from Toronto, it's easy to forget how large these rural Alberta properties are. We did not head for his living room; we headed to a building behind the house. The gnomes followed, I'm sure of it. Waiting to pounce.

The treaty the owner had with the gnomes was still holding. They did not enter.

Once inside, it was clear the declaration of "largest cephalopod collection in Canada" was no idle boast. There were tons of them! Check out the ammolite specimen above. Ammolite is the semi-precious "stone" interior of ancient ammonites, like mother-of-pearl, but sometimes with startling red tones shot throughout. The owner gave us a bit of information, then sat down at a desk and let us look. Each glass case held a myriad of early life forms or minerals, all hand labelled with a description and location.

At left is a pretty geode, larger than your fist. Looks like marshmallow, doesn't it?

Mmmmm....tasty geode....

I love minerals like this. The little 'hairs' on the puffball-looking formation are so tiny, it challenges the eye to pick them out.

There were shark's teeth, plant fossils, fish fossils, and enough coprolite to keep my five year old nephew entertained (at least after we told him it's dinosaur poop).

The collection is well worth the drive out of the way for any fossil enthusiast or person looking for a spot to take the family. It is a private collection however, and I would strongly recommend asking permission before taking photos, as I have done. It's polite. Rural Alberta has a bit of a reputation for being conservative, at least with Ontarians, and it was nice to see an entire museum devoted to fossils instead of fundamentalism.

Of course there are abundant trilobite fossils, even if they were outnumbered by the ancient predatory cephalopods. Here is Mr. Jumbo, a whopper of a fossil about 60 cm long. This beautiful trilobite is easily more than a match for the gnomes outside, and no wonder they did not enter the building. Is that some sort of iron-rich mineral giving it a rusty appearance? I wonder. A little sea scorpion and ammonite sit submissively beneath the pygidium of this prehistoric royalty.

There are a few tiny fossils and mineral jewellry for purchase, nothing as grand as what's in the collection. I bought a nice little brachiopod, and left the Three Rivers Rock & Fossil Museum with my appetite for prehistoric wonder whetted for more.

We left the militant gnomes behind.

Thursday 19 July 2007

Back from the Badlands

I'm back from my family holiday in Alberta. The land was so starkly different from Ontario, I simply gawked out of my window for much of my trip. Mountains gliding across the distant horizons. Electric yellow-green canola fields commanding the eye. Gorgeous white windmills silently thrumming in the fields, often lined up to catch an invisble corridor of kinetic power for kilometers at a time.

Every once in a while, the land sloping sharply downward through a layered cake of every shade of beige and rust toward a riverbed that may or may not have water at the bottom. And may or may not contain fossils sprinkled throughout.

I have a lot I wish to blog about the trip. A very warm thanks to my travelling companions, and to our gracious hosts, my wife's cousins' and aunt & uncle, for all the fun and more travelling than was reasonable to indulge this paleo-nerd in looking for things millions of years old.

Over the next few weeks, likely topics I will blog include:

Wednesday 11 July 2007

Fun with Trilobites!

Here are some of the more bizarre trilobite links I've come across the last few months while presenting my artowork on this blog.

Trilobites fluttering everywhere...
With over 6 billion people on the planet, you'd think I'd know that no idea is probably completely original any more. But I was still shocked (and later delighted) to see another site featuring trilobites with wings. The award-winning online comic Girl Genius by Phil & Kaja Foglio has just that, in the form of the Heterodyne logo. I suppose the juxtaposition is what is entrancing about the idea of a trilobite with wings. I've developed it after seeing the extended pleura halfway down the body of some trilobite families. What Girl Genius does is evoke an Eqyptian scarab. The comic has many avid fans, one of who alerted me to the similarity, (thanks Luna_the_Cat!) The comic is delightful and the artwork just brilliant.

For more inspired trilobite artwork, check out the alluring images by Jacqueline Rae on deviantArt.

Trilobite Cookies!
Aww, look at the cute little baby trilo- >bite!<

Look! Up in the sky!
The very cool work of Peter Lynn. Trilobite kites!

Trilobite molecules. Over 15 000 species wasn't enough, now they're invading physics. Run while you can!

Apparently, there is also a band...

You can never miss the best resource page online, by Sam Gon III, A Guide to the Order of Trilobites. There's even a pin-up once a month. Shake that pygidium! There's even a page about trilobite imposters, like those pesky isopods that fool so many people.

Three very cool words put together:
Robot. Trilobite. Vacuum. by Electrolux! I want one. Or two, they could mate and the robot uprising could start to evolve.

Has The Flying Trilobite missed anything else truly strange and wondrous? Please post a link!

Now I'm off to Calgary and the Alberta badlands for a week! I'll have lots of blogable material and hopefully some new drawings.

Wednesday 4 July 2007

Just a spoonful of Mamenchisaurus to help the medicine go down!

Pachycephalosaurus: overlooked source to cure gout, pinkeye, and disobedient children?

Yahoo News has reported that central Chinese villagers from the Henan province have been grinding up dinosaur fossils and using them as traditional medicine to cure dizziness and leg cramps. Their belief has been that the calcium-rich fossils are dragon bones.

And here's the good news. The scientist who reported this story, Dong Zhiming, also said that once the villagers found out what it was they were consuming, they stopped. Someone please, please fly this man to a certain 'museum' in Kentucky! His powers of persuasion must be truly awesome.

Really though. Folkloric animal-based medicines like shark-cartilege and tiger penises have been persuasive medicines for the desperate, the traditional, and the New Age set for, well, since prehistory, I would guess. And I think the two easiest ways to spot a false cure are 1. when it cures a disparate set of ailments, such as the "dizziness & leg cramps", or 2. when it cures something suspiciously too-related to what body part it is from, like tiger penis for sexual dysfunction. Makes me suspicious. Oh yeah, and lack of double-blind empirical testing is not a good sign either.

Good for these folks though. Stopped drinking dinosaur-calcium soup straight away. Perhaps last month's Seed magazine was right, and China is successfully pushing its science-based agenda thoughout the country. Hm.

The Flying Trilobite happily recommends Dinobase for an excellent source of dinosaur related science. And, next week, my wife and I will be visiting family in Alberta! I hope to produce more dinosaur sketches like the one above while I am there. Any of this blog's readers out in Calgary?

Monday 2 July 2007

Ugly Phase

Most of my paintings go through the Ugly Phase. I have to dive right in and push that oil paint until I start to become satisfied with it. Right now I can't bear to look at it without correcting every little thing.

When I can't stop looking at it without finding more to do, that's when I start to enjoy the process of painting. The end result of a piece thrills me when I feel it has come out well. The process of getting there is more a wracking exercise in frustration.

At this point, I feel Lim Leng Hiong of Fresh Brainz is right; Professor Dawkins looks somewhat stern in my rendition. I think I'll go with it. Combatting irrational creationists is a stern business.
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