Thursday, December 11, 2014

Interview with the AWESOME Ashley Hall!

Two people who I admire in the field of paleontology are Ashley and Lee Hall. I consider them both to be very good friends and I'm honored to have met them. I entered the field of geology and paleontology with the innocence and excitement of a kid. Meeting these two fine paleontologists reminded me to stay the course, study hard, and never give up on your dreams.

Hi there! My name is Ashley Hall and I work full-time as a Gallery Interpreter (educator) at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County where I give tours about dinosaurs, alleviate fears about arachnids, and get drooled on by opossums. As part of this job, I also give tours of the La Brea Tar Pits; the largest Ice Age fossil locality in the world. On my 6th day of work, you can find me at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology where I’m one of the Assistant Curators of Paleontology.

Photo provided by Ashley Hall.

Question 1: You are currently involved in the field of paleontology. Who did you admire growing up in regards to this fascinating field?

I really admired Jack Horner and Robert Bakker. As a little girl, I loved going to the library with my Mom to pick out new books and VHS tapes about dinosaurs (YES, VHS tapes are now fossils themselves)! One of the VHS tapes I remember vividly featured paleontologists in the field digging up dinosaurs—we didn’t have fancy CGI back then, so real paleontologists digging up dinosaurs in the field were the stars of the show and I grew up idolizing them.

Photo provided by Ashley Hall.

Question 2: At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

Age 4. I was in love with dinosaurs from the minute I knew what they were. I wasn’t your typical little girl. I loved jewelry and playing with Barbies, but I also had a huge bag full of dinosaurs. If you ask my parents, they’d tell you that I used to walk around at family gatherings telling relatives which dinosaurs lived in which time periods. I was determined to work with fossils when I grew up. My parents, who used to take me on holiday vacations to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, told me that if I wanted to be a paleontologist, I could. They’ve always been my cheerleaders.

Question 3: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up? What dinosaur is your favorite now?

Parasaurolophus. I had a pink Playskool Parasaurolophus toy that I LOVED. Ironically, the Raymond M. Alf Museum, where I work now, is the only museum in the world to have a complete, articulated baby Parasaurolophus in its collection. I was able to help excavate, curate, and catalog its’ bones, which was a dream come true. Whenever I look at it, I feel like I’m five years old again. If you want to learn more about the baby Parasaurolophus named “baby Joe”, go to or see him in person at the museum. Parasaurolophus is still my favorite after all these years. There’s just something about that fabulous crest. 
Parasaurolophus life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza.

 Question 4: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines. What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

READ read read! Research by reading books, browsing the web, or by visiting local natural history museums.

Also, don’t set your mind on working exclusively with dinosaurs when you grow up—try to keep an open mind. You may end up falling in love with fossils that aren’t dinosaurs like Dimetrodon, invertebrates like trilobites, or even fossil plants. The world is FULL of wonderful and weird groups of fossil organisms that aren’t dinosaurs (believe it or not)! If you have it in your mind that you’re going to specialize on one group of animals, you’re only limiting yourself to what you’re willing to work on.

Question 5: Were there any subjects in college you dreaded?

Algebra. I put it off until my senior year of college. Don’t do that. I barely passed!

Question 6: What was or is your favorite research project? What are some of your current projects?

Oooh! I have a few research projects going on. See Lee Hall’s interview for details.

Question 7: Jurassic Park was the movie I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?  How do you feel about the new movie in the series from what you’ve heard?

Jurassic Park, of course! I saw it when I was 9 years old and it changed the way I looked at dinosaurs forever. Jurassic Park was the catalyst that fueled my fire to pursue paleontology. I love Jurassic Park so much that my husband, Lee Hall, proposed to me at the original filming site where Dr. Grant scares the kid with the Velociraptor claw. Lee, dressed as Dr. Grant, made me reenact the entire “6 foot turkey” scene and then pulled the claw out of his pocket—except he didn’t use the claw to slash at me--instead, he had a beautiful ring delicately placed on the end and asked me to marry him. A year later, we had a Jurassic Park themed wedding! You could say Jurassic Park has had quite the effect on my life. ;) You can actually watch our proposal on YouTube here:
Photo provided by Ashley Hall.

Question 8: I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist. Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met? Were you a nervous wreck?

Honestly, I can’t remember. It might have been Dr. Luis Chiappe and yes, I think I was quite nervous! He’s famous for his research of the evolution of birds—something that I’ve always been enamored by—so meeting him was like meeting a celebrity!

Question 9: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

I think people like dinosaurs because they’re similar to animals today, but just different enough to really challenge our imaginations. Fossil mammals like mammoths are great, but they’re SO similar to elephants today. There isn’t anything quite like Brachiosaurus or T.rex around today, and I think that’s why they’ve captured our imaginations. It’s almost unimaginable to think that we walk on the same planet where they once ruled for millions of years. It’s also hard for us to grasp the concept that something so big and successful can become extinct. It helps put our own human existence in perspective.

Question 10: What is your favorite time period?

The Late Cretaceous. Most of the excavations I’ve been a part of have been in Late Cretaceous sediments. I’ve walked on eggshells, gotten stuck in Cretaceous mud, and have held hundreds of dinosaur, crocodile, and turtle bones in my career. If I had to go back in time, it would be to the Late Cretaceous of Montana or Utah so that I could finally see and smell the environment and all of its many, awe-striking animals and plants.

Question 11: Coelophysis is my favorite dinosaur from the sites I’ve work in! What is your favorite dinosaur from your fieldwork sites?

Probably Troodon formosus from Egg Mountain in Montana. Troodon was toothy, large, and was an awesome parent based on what we’ve learned about their nests. Seeing them take care of their tiny, fuzzy chicks would have been an adorable sight. 
Photo provided by Ashley Hall.
Question 12: Geology, among many disciplines of study, is such a vital subject when studying the past. Why do you feel this background is important to know when hunting dinosaurs?

Geology is the glue that binds paleontology together. Erosion helps us find them in the first place. Delicate footprints, like pterosaur tracks, are only preserved because of the type of substrate the animal walked on. That same sediment can help you determine what type of environment the animal lived in and possibly died in because of tiny microfossils. Geology, most importantly, can help us understand what forces helped preserve the fossils in the first place. In paleontology, nothing makes sense except in the light of geology.

Question 13: Where can our audience go to learn more about your work and support what you do?

You can visit me at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (, The Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits ( and at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, CA ( Follow me on Twitter: @ladynaturalist and on Instagram: lady_naturalist. 
Photo provided by Ashley Hall.

Question 14: What else do you enjoy? What other interesting hobbies do you have?

Recently, I’ve taken up taxidermy through Allis Markham’s classes in Los Angeles. I have a fascination with ALL dead things—taxidermy, fossils, and bones. I also draw and paint, love listening to music by Gwen Stefani and Taylor Swift, and love shopping. Like I said, girls can still be girly girls and love dinosaurs, too.

Question 15:  Have you ever been to New Jersey?

No! But I’d love to visit someday!

Tales from the Field: The Early Bird!

One of my favorite parts of paleontology is being able to visit historic locations: the place where the first of something was found, or the museum where a famous figure worked. One of my favorite memories of working on my Coelophysis project for my M.Sc. (now finally published as Bulletin 63 of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History!) was seeing the articulated nesting skeletons of Oviraptor at the American Museum of Natural History.

Type localities are a big deal in vertebrate paleontology. It's the location of first contact with a part of the Earth's history that has never before been seen and recognized for its importance. They are also the place where present and future researchers can visit and continue to collect information using new ideas and techniques. Also, these sites are bloody cool!

I had a great opportunity to visit the type locality of Ignotornis mcconnelli, the very first Mesozoic bird footprint ever named. Ignotornis was named by Maurice Goldsmith Mehl (1887-1966) in 1931 from a locality "one and a half miles northwest of Golden, Colorado". The specimen was found by N. H. McConnell and donated to the University of Colorado at Boulder. This specimen, the holotype specimen, is UCM 17614.
Ignotornis mcconnelli holotype slab, figured in Lockley et al. (2009).

"Hold up, Shaman: what's a holotype?"

A holotype is the one physical example (it can be a picture, if there is no physical specimen) of an organism (or the trace of an organism) that is being given a unique name. The type is also the specimen to which other similar-looking specimens must be compared when you name a completely new specimen. There are many different categories of types, and many, many rules governing how the different types are named and under what circumstances. This is governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. For example: did the original physical specimen go missing and you want to make a different specimen the reference? There's a rule for that!

One of the great things with science is that there is always an opportunity to clear up confusing statements. When Mehl described Ignotornis, he made reference to other track-bearing slabs, but didn't really state how they were related to the type (although they were all originally cataloged under the same number), or make specific mention of which rock layer in the outcrop these slabs came from. Lockley et al. (2009) cleared up this bit of confusion and used these other track-bearing slabs to re-examine Ignotornis mcconnelli (and provided lots of great data and images), and formally name these other slabs as additional reference (type) specimens. Lockley et al. also narrowed down exactly how old Ignotoris is by tracking down (pun completely intended) the discovery site of the original specimen, which is in the Cretaceous Dakota Group, Albian - Cenomanian (approximately 113-94 million years old) in age.

Ignotornis mcconnelli was the first footprint type attributed to a bird by a long lead: Koreanaornis hamanensis was named in 1969, and the Peace Region's own Aquatilavipes swiboldae was named in 1981. The ichnogenus Ignotornis existed for 75 years with only one ichnospecies until 2006 when Ignotornis yangi was named (Kim et al. 2006), and in 2012 Kim et al. named Ignotornis gajinensis, which has a great feeding trace associated with the trackway (both from South Korea)

I visited the rediscovered type locality of Ignotornis mcconnelli in October in the company of Martin Lockley and Rich McCrea. It is not exactly the most obvious of localities: the mountain-building processes of the region have uplifted and shifted the rock layers around quite a bit, and I had a scary moment of having to climb up and over a vertical piece of sandstone and scramble down a steep slope to get to the locality. I don't like heights (which surprises many, given the amount of vertical track work I do), but that was not going to stop me from visiting this site.

This was the easy part of the climb. There are no pics of the scary part: I needed both my hands to keep from dying.
Once I finished my scramble (and vocalizations reminiscent of a cat stuck up a tree), I was there: I was at the discovery site of the first Mesozoic bird footprints! The site did not disappoint.

Ignotornis mcconnelli, in the flesh, er, foot!
See the hallux (otherwise known as digit I) impression? See the wide splay of the digits? These are classic bird footprint identifiers. When dealing with a trackmaker that is small, has a weight-bearing digit I, wide splay, and even impressed webbing, it's pretty easy to say "Yup, that's a bird!" It's when the trackmaker that is larger and with a digit I that does not always impress that people run into the "is it a large bird or a small non-avian theropod?" problem. I'm working hard to help address this issue - stay tuned for papers.

While we were there, we decided to document a large in-place (or in situ) set of Ignotornis trackways with photogrammetry. This way we get to take a 3D digital replica of the tracksite to our home lab with zero impact on the surface.

Martin Lockley (left) and Rich McCrea (right) digitally documenting Ignotornis footprints.
I also got to see how variable the preservation is with Ignotornis prints: not all that tweets leaves a hallux impression.

Footprint #3 in this photo (numbered from left to right) is much more shallow, and only leaves a hint of something that could be a hallux. Prints #1 and #2 have deeply impressed hallices.
One of my favorite photos. See the third print from the left? See how skinny the toes are compared to the other three prints? That's what varying your substrate consistency can do to your footprints. That print likely does not represent a different trackmaker, but is an Ignotornis footprint made at a different time than the other three.
The track surfaces also contain invertebrate burrows, seen here in the upper left and center right of the picture.
Bird traces are not the only ichnofossils to be found at this locality: invertebrate burrows, reptile prints, and large ornithopod footprints are preserved.

Natural cast of a left foot of an ornithopod. The wide foot and rounded toes tell us that it is a plant-eater.
Of course, modern animals were present at the site. One rattlesnake got a bit cranky with us and rattled before scooting off under a rock, and a Red-tailed Hawk flew overhead. The lady beetle was much more willing to pose for photos.

This ends my visit to the Ignotornis type locality! We collected a lot of great images and data, and I hope this will not be my only visit to the site. As the rock layers erode, more tracks will make their appearance after being hidden for 100 million years, waiting to tell us their story.

Birdy-Type References

Currie PJ. 1981. Bird footprints from the Gething Formation (Aptian, Lower Cretaceous) of northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 1:257-264.

Kim, BK. 1969. A study of several sole marks in the Haman Formation. Journal
of the Geological Society of Korea 5:243-258.

Kim JY, SH Kim, KS Kim, M Lockley. 2006. The oldest record of webbed bird and pterosaur tracks from South Korea (Cretaceous Haman Formation, Changseon and Gansu Islands): more evidence of high avian diversity in East Asia. Cretaceous Research 27:56-69.

Kim JY, MG Lockley, SJ Seo, KS Kim, SH Kim, KS Baek. A paradise of Mesozoic birds: the World's richest and most diverse Cretaceous bird track assemblage from the Early Cretaceous Haman Formation of the Gajin Tracksite, Jinju, Korea. Ichnos 19:28-42.

Lockley MG, K Chin, K Houck, M Matsukawa, R Kukihara. 2009. New interpretations of Ignotornis, the first-reported Mesozoic avian footprints: implications for the paleoecology and behavior of an enigmatic Cretaceous bird. Cretaceous Research 30(4):1041–1061.

Mehl MG. 1931. Additions to the vertebrate record of the Dakota Sandstone. American Journal of Society 21:441-452.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fluffy Feathery Blog Filler (and some Ichnology).

Hello Dear Readers!

I've been busy with several papers and thesis-related work, so my posting of late has been sparse and sporadic. Once the New Year rolls around (and once I get these pesky papers submitted), I'll be able to focus on some of the really fun things I want to talk about.

Here is a little teaser of one of my planned posts. It's winter, and all the shorebirds have moved on to more hospitable climes. I had a great deal of fun while collecting my neoichnology (a.k.a. modern tracks) samples this summer, and I'm missing my warmer weather and feathered friends.

One of my targets is the Solitary Sandpiper (or Tringa solitaria for the binomial) These are goofy shorebirds: they regularly sit in trees along swampy and marshy areas. They also nest in trees. When they are not pretending to be passerines (they have a hallux, but not one that is in any way useful for actual perching) they spend their time foraging for invertebrates that live on the water's edge.

What did the traces of these particular sandpipers look like? Stay tuned for next time!
These are two Solitary Sandpipers foraging by bill probing the sediment. I was very excited to see this activity up close: Solitary Sandpipers are very shy, and tend to freak out if you get too close to them.
Bill probes left by a different Solitary Sandpiper. Scale = 10cm.
I must not have seemed threatening to these Solitary Sandpipers: once they completed this particular round of foraging, they decided to have a little nap.

Sleepy sandpipers. Canada Goose tracks in the foreground.
Bird traces aren't the only traces I focus on while frolicking around in the mud (Yes, concerned campers and motorists: I am a grown woman who plays in the mud for science.) Our mammalian fauna is also well represented at these sites.

One of the questions that pops up when seeing a large carnivore print is "Cat or Dog?" Many wolf prints are misidentified as cougar prints. Dog prints all have these things in common: they almost always have exposed claws (see the sharp tips at the ends of the toes?) and the almost always have a bi-lobed metatarsal-phalangeal pad - or "heel", but it's not technically a heel, as it is made up of different bones than what make up our heel. It's more accurate to think of it as a palm or sole pad, rather than a heel pad. Regardless, this is a small wolf print. Cats have three lobes in their palm/foot pad, and almost always sheath their claws when they walk.

Stylized BIG cat prints in the cement at the Page La Brea Tar Pits Museum in LA, showing the tri-lobed pad.
Maia triple-cat-dares you to say that she is neither large nor dangerous enough to have made the prints above.
That's all I have time for at the moment. I will add that I'm finally working on a couple of papers that get to use my neoichnology collection, so I will be very excited to see them in print.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Pampaphoneus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

This week, as requested by one of our fans on facebook, we will be looking at a truly intimidating carnivore that has distant ties with us humans.  Make way for Pampaphoneus biccaiPampaphoneus lived in what is now Brazil during the middle Permian Era, about 260 million years ago, tens of millions of years earlier than the first dinosaurs.  When alive, because of its teeth, scientists believe Pampaphoneus was a meat-eater, possibly hunting other reptiles it coexisted with.  Pampaphoneus is only known from one skull but by comparing its proportions to more complete relatives on the fossil record, its snout to tail length can be estimated somewhere between four and six feet long.  The name, Pampaphoneus, translates to "killer from the Pampas" in reference to the area of Brazil in which the fossil was discovered.

Life reconstruction of two Pampaphoneus getting up from a snooze by Christopher DiPiazza.

 Visually, Pampaphoneus is difficult to place compared to animals that are alive today.  It was clearly reptilian but it has some striking mammalian features as well, especially in its teeth.  This is because Pampaphoneus was a kind of dinocephalian.  Dinocephalians are considered "mammal-like reptiles" and illustrate one of the branches of the reptilian family tree that was on its way to becoming mammals.  These peculiar creatures came in a variety of sizes and shapes during the middle Permian.  Some ate plants, others ate meat, most had some sort of knobby protrusions on their skulls, and many of them had long teeth.  By human standards they were pretty ugly, not gonna lie.  Ugly in a beautifully fascinating way, though!  Sadly, dinocephalians never actually made it that far, however, having disappeared from the fossil record pretty abruptly around 260 million years ago, but the Permian Era was full of other mammal-like reptiles, which would eventually give rise to true mammals like us hundreds of millions of years later.  The very famous, Dimetrodon, is another kind of mammal-like reptile, but is not a dinocephalian. 

Pampaphoneus biccai skull

Pampaphoneus is interesting because it is the only dinocephalian found in South America.  All other known dinocephalians are from either South Africa or Russia.  This tells us that during the Permian era, these mammal-like reptiles had to have had a way to disperse from continent to continent.  They were able to do this quite easily because back then, the seven continents we have now were actually joined to form one massive land mass, called Pangea.  Finding similar fossils on different continents helps scientists map out closely how the continents at one point were joined together and how long ago they separated.

That is all for this week!  Join us next time for another Prehistoric Animal of the Week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page


Angielczyk, K. D. (2009). "Dimetrodon is Not a Dinosaur: Using Tree Thinking to Understand the Ancient Relatives of Mammals and their Evolution". Evolution: Education and Outreach 2 (2): 257–271. doi:10.1007/s12052-009-0117-4.

Cisneros, J.C.; Abdala, F.; Atayman-Güven, S.; Rubidge, B.S.; Şengör, A.M.C.; Schultz, C.L. (2012). "Carnivorous dinocephalian from the Middle Permian of Brazil and tetrapod dispersal in Pangaea". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 (5): 1584–1588. doi:10.1073/pnas.1115975109.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jurassic World Trailer: Thoughts

Today the trailer for the latest installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, Jurassic World, was released.  If you have not seen it already, check it out below!

I would rather not go and start nitpicking every anatomical inaccuracy about the dinosaurs in this trailer.  I have long ago accepted the fact that Jurassic Park in no way is aiming to be accurate in its renderings. Yes, the theropods don't have feathers, and the sauropod appears to have too many toes, but why are so many of my fellow paleontology nerds acting so surprised?  Jurassic Park was never supposed to be a scientific educational franchise.  Do I wish the dinosaurs looked more realistic to what science tells us so the masses wouldn't continue to get the wrong impressions about paleontology?  Of course.  The reality, however, is this idea isn't Jurassic Park's game and hasn't been since the first two movies.  (which also had flaws)  I get more upset when i see inaccuracies on shows that are supposed to be educational like on the Discovery Channel, for instance.  There is less of an excuse for error there and people watch those programs with the intent to learn facts. 

I'm still excited about this movie.  Honestly, what dinosaur fan wouldn't be?  I know Jurassic Park fans have wanted a marine reptile in a film for a long time.  There was even a plesiosaur metal figure that went with the first line of Jurassic Park toys back in the 1990s (still have mine) but nothing else ever came of it. Now, twenty years later, there is a gigantic mosasaur in Jurassic Park!


May we also please notice how there appears to be trained Velociraptors?  I wonder how long it would take to condition one of them, let alone get it to do what I wanted.  As a zookeeper i can say it takes a lot of work training modern dinosaurs.  I can only imagine what it could be like work with a large dromaeosaur!

Wonder if they used clicker-training... yeah, it was probably clicker training.

 Let's not forget about that mysterious, genetic hybrid that is no-doubt set to be this film's main antagonist.  It isn't seen in the trailer, beyond its feet and front claws a bit.  However, images of some of the upcoming lego toys to go with this movie have been released on the internet and one of them is most likely this new dinosaur.

You have no idea how many times parts of movies have been spoiled by toy companies releasing products and adds before the film hits theaters.

 That's all I really have to say about this trailer.  I may touch on it more in the future.  What are your thoughts on the trailer?  Are you going to see it?  What things are you hoping to see?  Are you disappointed the dinosaurs in the latest film are still scientifically inaccurate?  Do YOU think the Velociraptors were clicker-trained? (Cuz I do.) Let me know in the comments below!

UPDATE: I saw a tweet from one of the writers of the movie.

If I were to nitpick on what the original tweeter said I would say domesticated is not the same as trained but I get the message.  This just solidifies for me that clicker training doesn't always work, especially with Velociraptors.