Woohoo for Wuhan

In these uncertain times, we can always fall back on the security of bones and knowing that they can preserve messages in the fossil record. By contrast, lesser tissues and even completely boneless organisms,  including viruses, do not stand the test of geologic time particularly well, if at all. (Take that, novel coronavirus!).

So today it is particularly fitting to summarize a report emanating recently from the Wuhan Centre of China Geological Survey. The basis of the study is a strange marine reptile named Eretmorhipis, which comes from the Greek words for oar and fan. Two rather intact specimens have been discovered in Hubei Province, not far from Wuhan, in what was a lagoon 250 million years ago. This was a short two million years after a mass extinction wiped out 96% of marine animals.  

Oar-fan is a suitable name for this lagoon dweller because the animal’s paddle-like feet with fanned-out digits were likely useful for propulsion and maneuvering. Eretmorhipis also sported ten dorsal triangular plates, reminiscent of the spinal blades of Stegosaurus.

Based on Oar-fan’s closely spaced vertebrae, thick ribs, and the presence of abdominal ribs, the investigators surmise that it did not have much trunk or tail flexibility, contrasted to most reptiles. What is even more remarkable is Oar-fan’s tiny head compared to its overall length of about three feet. The investigators note that only tiny eyes can fit in such a small head. They therefore surmise that Oar-fan did not see well, especially in murky water characteristic of lagoons. So it had to rely on another sense to capture prey. But in its small head there would not be room for much sound detection equipment either. And everybody knows that trying to smell under water doesn’t work. How about tasting, since tongue flicking is a well-known reptilian trait? The investigators discount that sense as useful for Oar-fan to go hunting because “the vomeronasal fenestra is lacking in the palate … and tongue flicking is unsuitable for prey and predator detection.” I’ll have to take their word for those facts.

So with a clumsy trunk and tail, lousy eyes and ears, and the unlikely  ability to taste or smell, how did Oar-fan catch food? The investigators took a second look at Oar-fan’s jaw, which is shaped like a duck’s bill, and the lights went on. The whole animal is as preposterous as a duckbilled platypus, and its snout is the same shape. A platypus is known to scavenge in murky water by snatching up whatever its bill bumps into; and Oar-fan probably did the same, with shrimp being its most likely dietary staple. Another possibility, which the investigators cannot rule out based on the fossil record, is that Oar-fan used electroreception. This works for Guiana dolphins but is not known to exist in reptiles; and even bones, as great as they are for preserving Earth’s history, cannot provide that answer.   

Oar-fan does, however, add useful insights into the rapid ecological diversification that occurred after a monumental mass extinction.  Furthermore, thank you, Oar-fan, for momentarily diverting our attention from pandemics. Any good news from Wuhan is good news indeed.

Mastodons at Snowmass

Ziegler Reservoir, nearly 9000 feet up in the Colorado mountains, is dinky. When frozen over, you could walk across it in four minutes. Yet beneath its water is a repository of fossils that is unequaled worldwide. The story starts about 140,000 years ago, but humans have been involved for only the past ten. In 2010 the local water district, after acquiring the water rights from the namesake family, began deepening the reservoir in order to supply drinking water to Snowmass Village and man-made snow to the adjacent ski area. Hardly had the first bulldozer blade touched mud when old bones and teeth, gigantic ones, began surfacing. The findings were mammoth, both figuratively and literally.

The contractor summoned paleontologists from the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, who over the next several weeks worked closely with the construction crew to carefully retrieve a trove of fossilized bones, teeth, insects, and plant material, including pollen. Winter set in and work stopped until Spring. Then a large gathering of scientists and volunteers worked side by side with the heavy equipment operators to carefully remove and preserve as many specimens as possible. As agreed upon from the outset, collection continued for seven weeks, after which the construction project proceeded unimpeded. Water refilled the reservoir and continues to protect the expected vast store of remaining fossils from erosion or pilfering.

The scientists weren’t moaning, however, because they had obtained for study over 35,000 bones from roughly 50 species of animals ranging in size from mammoths, North American camels, and bison down to beavers, lizards, birds, frogs, snails, and insects. Plant material, including pollen, abounded as well. All told, the site is the most productive high-elevation Ice Age fossil site ever discovered—a reservoir indeed.

One might ask, did this accumulation occur as a result of a cataclysmic event such as a meteorite striking Earth? No, because the plants and animals became entombed in the reservoir over nearly 100 thousand years, not over a far shorter time, which would be characteristic of a sudden environmental change. The best guess is that the glacier responsible for carving the valley receded about 130,000 years ago, a lake formed, sediment accumulated gradually and turned the area first into a wetland and then into a meadow. For many millennia, animals came to drink, died naturally or became mired in mud, and were eventually silted over. What is even more remarkable, that when the next glacier which came along and maxed out about 20 thousand years ago, it skirted this valley, thus saving the entombed plants and animals from massive forces of churning and grinding.    

In the sediment of this ancient lake is the layered evidence of multiple alpine ecosystems. A number of vertebrate species unearthed have never before been found at this high elevation. And although most of the site’s large animals (mastodons, mammoths, giant ground sloths, North American camels) are now extinct, most of the plants and insects still exist, although elsewhere. The varying climate, from arctic to temperate and back to arctic, can be discerned from the fossilized insects and plant material, including pollen, recovered from each layer. Whether this time capsule of climate change has current relevance is yet to be determined. Regardless, the site will always be known as …

Bones Glide Nicely on Ice

For many, winter ice means at least aggravation, if not slips and falls; but ice facilitates travel for some and provides amusement for others—practices that range back at least 4000 years and which were facilitated by bone.  

Inuits found it easier to dogsled on ice than either to walk on tundra or to paddle on water. Today, dogsled runners (and skis and snowboards), have plastic-covered gliding surfaces that minimize friction. Inuits, however, had to improvise with the hardest, smoothest material they had available: bones, which likely came from caribou shins or possibly from whale ribs. Craftsmen cut them into flat strips and drilled holes through them. Then using a leather thong, they lashed the bone segments to the sled’s runners. Away they slid.

Others borrowed the technology. For instance, Robert Perry made an expedition to Greenland in 1891-1892. On his ship’s first approach to land, its rudder hit some ice. The out-of-control tiller struck Perry’s lower leg and broke both bones. Perry had to stay in camp the next six months to heal while team members made short forays into the unknown. The second year, using dogsleds equipped with traditional bone-clad runners, Perry mushed far enough north to determine that Greenland was an island.

Arrows indicate bone-cladding on the runners

Farther east and about four millennia earlier, enterprising Northern European travelers thought, “We don’t need sleds or dogs. Those are a lot of work and extra mouths to feed. We can just tie bones to our boots.” Away they skated–first as a means of winter transportation and later for amusement.

At various archaeology sites in Great Britain and Scandinavia, cannon bones from the legs of horses and cattle have shown up, drilled through to accept thong laces and smoothed to glide on ice.

Cannon Bone Skates
Above: Museum of London
Below: Stockholm Source

William FitzStephen, clerk to Thomas Becket and chronicler of twelfth-century London life wrote:

Others …. fit to their feet the shin-bones of beasts, lashing them beneath their ankles, and with iron-shod poles in their hands, they strike ever and anon against the ice and are borne along swift as a bird in flight or a bolt shot from a mangonel (catapult).

FitzStephen may have anticipated hockey checking when he continued:

But sometimes two by agreement run one against the other from a great distance, and raising their poles, strike one another. One or both fall, not without bodily harm, since on falling they are borne a long way in the opposite directions by the force of their own motion; and wherever the ice touches the head, it scrapes and skins it entirely.

Four centuries later, ice skating technology had improved, at least marginally. Olaus Magnus observed:  

The rest are outrun by those competitors in the race who attach to the soles of their feet the shin-bones of deer thoroughly smoothed and greased with pork fat.  

Another bone-aided ice escapade combined elements of sledding and skating, which several sixteenth-century artists depicted. It would be a tight fit even for a small child, but feasible, since a horse’s jawbone is almost eighteen inches long. (Cow jawbones are shorter.) The operator is practically sitting on the ice, the safest place to be considering how slippery it is.

Bottom line: bones do glide nicely on ice, just take care that the bones doing the sliding are not yours.

Truth, Lies, and Presidential Bones

I, along with some others, take Presidents Day as an opportunity to celebrate the lives and contributions of all US presidents. Amid the praise, however, perhaps I alone feel compelled to describe their skeletal maladies. I have gleaned the following information from several websites and books that carefully detail the reported injuries, diseases, bad habits, and addictions experienced by US chief executives throughout their lives, starting with George Washington’s birth in 1732.

The list may not be complete and accurate for at least three reasons. X-rays were not discovered until 1895, so a “fracture” before that time, unless the bone ends were seen emerging through the skin, might have been a dislocated joint or a bad sprain. Secondly, diagnostic terms such as gout, lumbago, and rheumatism have been tossed about without strict and uniform definitions over the nearly 300-year span of this survey. And early on, there were not confirmatory laboratory tests for such diagnoses. Finally, there have been multiple instances where a president wanted to keep his ailment(s) secret because of their implication of weakness or vulnerability; yet the truth escaped. It is possible, however, that there are other presidential ails that never became publicly known.

Efforts at secrecy led to at least one other problem. It may have precluded some presidents from receiving the best care available, because for the sake of covertness, they shunned the most eminent (and most visible) doctors and hospitals. Another possible problem is that trying to maintain secrecy usually entailed lying. 

Millard Fillmore

Jimmy Carter is the longest living president–presently 94 and counting. Who was the healthiest president? Likely it was Millard Fillmore. He neither drank nor smoked and was conscientious about maintaining his wellbeing. He had no known medical problems until he suffered a stroke at age 74. A second stroke later the same year killed him.

John Tyler

Conversely, John Tyler was in ill health throughout his life. His maladies included arthritis and general achiness, particularly in his post-presidential years. Nonetheless, he managed to father eight children with one wife before he was President and seven more with a second wife after his term. His last child was born when Tyler was 70. Tyler died two years later. Imagine his productivity had he been spry.

People will undoubtedly speculate forever about Lincoln’s skeletal condition. There is some agreement that he inherited it from his mother, since they shared many skeletal features. A reporter once described Lincoln as over six feet tall, lanky, with long drooping arms “terminating in hands of extraordinary dimensions, which, however were far exceeded in proportion by his feet.”  Lincoln, whatever his skeletal peculiarities, did not apparently have any noteworthy bony problems other than having a piece of his jaw extracted along with a tooth. Many of his fellow presidents were not so lucky.

Jefferson, Kennedy and George W. Bush all had severe back pain. Jefferson’s life predated the discovery of general anesthesia, so elective back surgery during his time was unimaginable. JFK had one operation, Bush two.

Gerald Ford sustained multiple injuries playing high school and college football, which led in later life to bilateral total knee replacements. These restored his ability to play golf and tennis.

Grover Cleveland

In 1893 during his second presidential term, Grover Cleveland surreptitiously had surgery to remove a cancer from his mouth (on his cigar-chewing side) along with part of his upper jaw and hard palate. The surgery was performed entirely through his mouth, so there was no external evidence of the procedure, and his bushy moustache likely concealed swelling and bruising. The clandestine operation took place aboard a private yacht cruising Long Island Sound. His five-day absence went entirely unexplained, and Cleveland allegedly said to those involved that he lied more about this event than he did during the whole rest of his life. Twenty-five years later the truth emerged.  

Here is a list of presidential fractures sorted from head to toe. Taft fell from a wagon at age nine and sustained a “minor” skull fracture, which by some accounts left him with a life-long and visible indentation in his scalp. Both Truman and Carter broke their collar bones, the former from falling out of a chair in childhood and the latter from skiing in adulthood. Both had additional fractures in late life. Truman fell and broke several ribs; and Carter, the oldest living past President at age 94, broke his hip as he was leaving home to go turkey hunting. Far more dramatic were Jackson’s rib fractures, which resulted from a duel. Later, in an out-and-out gunfight, a bullet shattered Jackson’s shoulder. The first gunshot wound continued to drain and stink for the rest of Jackson’s life.

Jefferson, two months after becoming Minister to France, broke his wrist. This occurred either while jumping a fence during a tour of Paris with a married woman (Jefferson’s wife had died three years before), while he was jumping over a kettle, or while he was walking with a friend. Was somebody lying? Regardless, this injury nagged him for the rest of his life and further disabled him when, at age 78, he fell from a broken step at home and fractured his opposite wrist.

Reagan fell from a horse and broke his femur when he was 38. At age 90, well after retiring from public view, he broke his hip, which was successfully pinned, and he survived another two years.

Regarding non-fatal gun shots yet harrowing glimpses of death but without apparent skeletal injuries, the award goes to Rutherford Hayes. He sustained Civil War battle wounds on four separate occasions and also had horses shot from under him an equal number of times. 

Even though Washington as a child blurted “I cannot tell a lie”, and Lincoln was known as Honest Abe, the prize for bold truth-telling goes to Eisenhower. A White House visitor noticed him wearing a leather wrist brace and inquired. Ike responded that it was mild arthritis. The visitor said he was glad it wasn’t serious. Eisenhower exclaimed, “I should say it’s serious. I can’t play golf.”  

Happy Presidents Day!

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To be published in October
by WW Norton

Why a broken leg is a horse’s death warrant.

Truest Reward was the thirty-eighth thoroughbred to meet its demise in 2019 at the Santa Anita racetrack. The high incidence of horses breaking their legs at this track in recent years has raised many concerns and adverse publicity.

Multiple factors are likely involved. They include not cancelling races when the track is rain-soaked and doping the steeds with anti-inflammatory drugs, sedatives, and muscle relaxants. Although toxicology studies have not shown drug levels that exceeded the racing board’s rules, it remains disturbing that the board allows horses to run while taking multiple medications. Such drugs likely mask early symptoms of skeletal stress, which are exacerbated by too-frequent racing–a habit promoted by those with strong financial stakes in the sport. The problem is not unique to Santa Anita. According to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database, an average of nearly ten horses died while racing or training at American racetracks in 2018. Even more sadly, the same fracture can occur in horses not bred to race.

Consider the long bones in your hand or forefoot. Imagine fusing two of the middle ones side to side, quadrupling their length, depriving them of any overlying muscle, and restricting their blood supply. Such are the cannon bones. They are a major reason why horses can run fast. But if the horse stumbles, gets kicked, or even tries to stand up in its stall, the cannon bone can break. The final snap may occur in a bone previously stressed and cracked, which was either unknown to or ignored by the trainer. Circulating medications may at times mask symptoms of the impending catastrophe.  

The bones themselves are problematic. Most of these fractures occur in either the front or hind leg’s cannon bone. I have blogged previously on the versatility of these strong, dense, long bones that have been repurposed as chisels, awls, hide scrapers, buttons, chess pieces, decorative objects, musical instruments, and paving. What makes the cannon bone useful to crafts people makes them useful to horses.

Those affiliated with horse racing, financially, emotionally, or both, describe the final act as euthanasia, which is double speak for kill. With either word, the result is the same: the world is absent one magnificent animal.



Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, about 1762
National Gallery

So why is an equine cannon bone fracture fatal? Dogs and cats can hop around pretty well on three legs. Horses can’t. If they try, their other hooves become diseased.  Casts and body slings are entirely impractical. Surgical fixation with metal plates and screws is sometimes attempted, but such procedures are complicated by several major issues. The fracture ends often tear the skin. Then bacteria-laden soil contaminates the wound. Infection overwhelms the surgical endeavor. The fracture may also strip the foot of its already tenuous blood supply, thus precluding the delivery of nutrients and antibiotics to the injury zone and beyond. Because of the added bulk, placement of sturdy hardware may preclude closure of the surgical incision. Then there is the issue of getting an 1100-pound patient to stand up following general anesthesia. The horse unknowingly and perhaps painlessly exerts tremendous bending and twisting forces that sorely test the stability of the most secure hardware fixation.

Is there hope? A little, especially for incomplete fractures and simple, non-displaced ones. Innovative veterinarian orthopedists can try to stabilize such fractures with screws placed through incisions just large enough to admit the drill, screw, and screwdriver. (three minute video) This is done with nerve blocks in the leg while the horse, awake, remains standing. (The surgeon and assistant perform the procedure on their knees.) Pool therapy, useful for sore tendons, ligaments, and joints in both humans and horses, may have a role in the rehabilitation of minor fractures that are securely fixed. Aquatic suspension may be particularly helpful during recovery from general anesthesia.

Since treatment is woeful and no improvements are on the horizon, hope has to rely on better regulation, which can’t come too soon. On New Years Day, Golden Birthday became the first Santa Anita racehorse in 2020 to meet Truest Reward’s fate from just five days before. And this is sport?

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The most popular About Bone posts in 2019:

Is it orthopedic or orthopaedic?

How are you going to celebrate National Fossil Day?

Versatile Venerable Vertebrae

Should you resolve to drink bone broth this year?

Extravagant Gifts for Bone Lovers

This time last year, I posted gift ideas for the frugal bone lover–nothing over $9.99. For this holiday season, I have decided to help you shop for those highly sophisticated, discriminating, hard-to-please recipients on your list. The options are vast, but for inclusion here, the selections had to meet these tasteful criteria:

no human skull motifs

no real-bone jewelry

nothing under $500

Of course, after you finish shopping, forward this post to those who will be shopping for you with a “hint, hint.”

By the way, I have no financial interest in any of the items, nor do I own any of them myself, except the last one, which is priceless.

For nature lovers, especially those with large homes or personal museums, consider an assembled skeleton. The leaping fox diorama is a steal for $1225, although it is presently on back order. Conversely the giraffe skeleton stands 14 feet tall and is immediately available for $42,000. Shipping charges would have to be negotiated. At a mere $3000 per vertical foot, the giraffe is certainly worth what it would add to any decor.

Perhaps your gifting budget is a bit tight and your nature lovers are a do-it-yourself types. Consider giving them skeleton “kits” to assemble. Size matters, of course. The squirrel monkey sells for $500 where as the caribou and the camel go for $3475 and $3975, respectively. (Camels are larger than caribous.)

caribou, squirrel monkey, camel

For do-it-yourself techies, large-capacity 3D printers would bring smiles to their faces. One big enough to print whole bones is going to cost $700-$800, but consider that the data files for many different bones are posted on the internet and are free. For example, here are prints of skulls of a gopher tortoise and a gray fox.

Admittedly, not everybody shares my love for bare bones. Nonetheless, extravagant gifts, which do not blatantly shout bone, abound. Consider jewelry, either made from bone or made to look like bone. The ring contains a polished dinosaur fossil. The jeweler insists that the incorporated fossils come from rock shards that are unidentifiable by species and unimportant to paleontologists. Whew! And for $1145, what a great way to safely relate to a terrible lizard. The bone-bead bracelet seems pretty enough without the diamond bauble, but that certainly elevates the price, which is $1050, shipping included. The “bone cuff” is a classic Elsa Peretti design that Tiffany’s lets go for $1150 in sterling silver and for ten times that much in gold. I am not sure if a discerning woman would wear the diamond dog bone necklace, but if she has a dog, then it is a winner. What pooch wouldn’t want to style jewelry worth $1335 around its neck.

For the cerebral, reserved types on your gift list, consider chess sets made of bone. This set costs $1495, which might seem extravagant for a game, but the recipient gets 32 pieces at $47 each.

Then for the impossibly difficult people on your list who already have everything, give them a way to carry and store their bounty. The Alexander McQueen roller bag is “pre-owned” and available on eBay for $796, but the seller is amenable to offers. Standing nearly six feet tall is a bone-inlaid closet selling for $2499 and suitable for storing skeletons.

Finally, here is the most valuable and enduring gift of all. It is priceless, and spreading the word about the blog will also be a great present to me. If you would like, I will mail as many ABOUT BONE cards to you as you wish. Toss each friend and loved one a bone (card) and encourage them to subscribe. Oh so tasteful and supremely extravagant!

Happy Holidays

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Breaking news for 2020:

Want to hear about Bone, Inside and Out, in a somewhat organized manner? I will be teaching such a course 1:30 – 3:00 pm on five Tuesdays, January 14 – February 11, at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles. Sign up now. We are going to have lots of fun.

WW Norton will be publishing my book, Bone, Inside and Out, in October. Details later.

Wishbone-related Topics to Bring Up (or not) at Thanksgiving Dinner

Certainly you awed your Thanksgiving companions the past two years with bone-related facts gleaned from Twelve No-Fail Conversation Starters Regarding Wishbones (November 2017) and It Takes A Turkey to Call a Turkey (November 2018). Your admirers are undoubtedly wondering what fascinating information you will bring to the holiday table this year.

When the usual chatter about wishbones seems to be waning, cut right in with, “You know, wishbones are not the only bones possessed by some animals but not humans.” Then go down the following list as far as necessary in order to ensure that you will be the center of attention for years to come.

eye rings: pigeon, Komodo dragon
Museum of Osteology

Some birds and reptiles have a flat ring of bone embedded in the white of their eyes. Dinosaurs did too. The ring surrounds the eyeball and tends to give the skull a scholarly look. It probably helps support the shape of the eye, but nobody knows its purpose for sure.

left to right: moose, cow, goat, bone-lover

I have discussed cannon bones (August 7, 2018) before. They are a fusion of several bones located between the ankles/wrists and digits of many hoofed animals. In life, the cannon bones facilitate running; afterwards they are particularly prized by indigenous peoples and handicrafters, who take advantage of their flat, straight surfaces and thick walls to make buttons, fish hooks, musical instruments, and decorative items.

extinct marine mammal, Glasgow Natural History Museum
courtesy D.W. Niven

The next is a set of bones, the gastral basket, possessed by a variety of prehistoric birds and reptiles, including T rex. Crocodiles and a lizard-like New Zealand creature are the sole present-day owners. A gastral basket looks like an oven-rack, in other words, a set of extra ribs at belly level, except that they are not attached to the rest of the skeleton. The gastral basket provided shield-like protection for the owner’s soft underbelly. It may have contributed to breathing, to flying, or to both. It was the Spanx of the prehistoric world.

Is your audience still raptly attentive? If so, carry on.

sea lion, courtesy Cetacea Contracting; ground squirrel, courtesy U Michigan

Nothing is in doubt about the function of the penis bone. It allows for prolonged intercourse, which is the necessary strategy for ensuring paternity of offspring when suitable females are encountered infrequently. Various current-day owners include dogs, cats, raccoons, and sea lions. Its shape varies from rod-like to phantasmagorical. Its size varies from tiny in small monkeys to over two feet long in walruses. Females of species that harbor penis bones generally have clitoris bones, although much smaller.

Likely by this time your tablemates are totally engrossed with your mastery of specialized osteology, but it’s better to stop now and leave them begging for more bone lore, which I will provide next November.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Twenty Ways to Celebrate Day of the Dead

It began as a three-day festival in Southern and Central Mexico and has spread around the world. Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations now take place throughout Central and South America, the Philippines, and locales as far away from Mexico as Massachusetts, New Zealand, and the Czech Republic.

Pre-Columbian cultures have held rituals celebrating their ancestors for perhaps 2500 years. On the Aztec calendar, the festival that morphed into the modern Day of the Dead celebration fell during the summer and lasted a month. After Spanish colonization of the New World in the 16th century, the festival became associated on the Christian calendar with Allhallowtide (All Saints’ Eve, aka Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. It is now a national holiday in Mexico, designed to be a unifying tradition among the nation’s various cultures.

The point is to celebrate deceased friends and family members and support their spiritual journey as they awaken temporarily to enjoy the festivities along with the living. Bones abound.

Colorful and elaborate skeletal displays, especially skulls, are evident in parades, costumes, shrines, and tomb decorations. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is embellished with twisted bones made from white frosting. Calaveras (sugar skull candies) are decorated to represent the unique personalities of the departed. A box can be on your doorstep tomorrow when you order from Amazon Prime.

Mexico City was a late comer to the idea of a Día de Muertos parade, starting with a staged one in 2015. It formed the opening scene for the James Bond movie Spectre. The heart-pounding opening scene lasts about eight minutes and shows Daniel Craig destroying a custom-tailored suit amidst gunfire and collapsing buildings; but if you want to focus on dancing bones and skeletons, watch between minutes three and five.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tMKqQPQcks

Following that publicity, Mexicans were so taken with the idea of a Day of the Dead parade that they held a bona fide one the next year, which 250,000 people attended. Atlantic magazine just this week posted an array of stunning photographs taken in anticipation of Mexico City’s 2019 merrymaking.

The Los Angeles offerings are centered at Olvera Street and include art exhibits, elaborate altars, and parades extending over nine days. Several cemeteries host elaborate altar-making contests with the winners walking away with $5000 prizes. See seventeen of the region’s top festivities here.

Day of the Dead celebrations are opportunities to celebrate life and remember those who did so previously. And for Angelenos, it’s another chance to get in costume. I joined the festivities last year and absorbed the culture on Olvera Street. Afterwards I rode the Metro home. Nobody on the train batted an eye.

How are you going to celebrate National Fossil Day?

Wednesday, October 16, is Fossil Day. The National Park Service proclaims it so, now for the tenth year. Its stated mission is “to highlight the scientific and educational value of paleontology and the importance of preserving fossils for future generations.”

As far as I know, there are no parades, costumes, holiday cards, or festive foods, just a day to appreciate stone bones. Special events are taking place at natural history and science museums in at least 34 states; but at this late date, you may have already made other plans, so at least you should know what paleontology is as well as what fossil are and a little bit about how they form.

Paleontology, a blending of geology and biology, is the study of ancient life on Earth, based on fossils, which are stone replicas of plants and animals.

An animal may die and get silted over before its skeleton either weathers away or gets scavenged. When conditions are just so, water permeating through those bones’ porous surfaces and leaches out calcium-containing molecules, which are then immediately replaced by another mineral dissolved in the water. The bone turns to stone, one molecule at a time, over tens of thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—of years. The mud surrounding the bone also turns to stone, but its constitution is different because it did not start out as bone. If the fossilized bone weathers away a little more slowly than the sedimentary rock within which it is embedded, then later—even millions of years later—when a sea, lake, or riverbank dries up, a passerby might spot a partially exposed fossil.

I get brain freeze when I consider two probabilities. First, only a tiny fraction of animals from millions of years ago were successfully transformed into fossils. Second, most of those that did turn to stone are either still buried or have already become exposed and have weathered away. The fossils that we do have, therefore, constitute only a minuscule glimpse of ancient life, yet they provide fortuitous and miraculous insights into Earth’s history. It is worth a day of reflection.

The public’s interest in fossils had a distinct beginning date–1868. Before that, large stone bones, which as you can imagine are heavy, collected dust in university and museum storerooms.

examples of Hawkin’s artwork

British artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was a prolific and well-known natural-history illustrator for Darwin and other mid-century biologists. Hawkins was commissioned to develop an extensive “Paleozoic Museum” in New York City’s Central Park. The intention was to dynamically display dinosaurs that had recently been discovered in America.

Hawkins and his earth-shaking Hadrosaurus

Because New York neither possessed the necessary fossils nor the paleontological expertise for the project, Hawkins ventured to Philadelphia. There he received support from the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences to assemble the skeleton of a thirty-foot dinosaur, most of the bones of which were in the Academy’s collection. He made plaster reproductions of missing bones and creatively supported them all with a metal framework such that the reconstructed skeleton assumed a lifelike, standing posture. Hawkins was the first to display fossilized dinosaur bones in this manner.   

The public clamored to see this assembled dinosaur skeleton. Attendance at the Academy doubled over the next year. The display piqued the public’s interest in dinosaurs, an interest that remains strong over 150 years later.

If you need some other juicy facts to spice up your Fossil Day conversations, here are several previous About Bone posts that will help.

Genuine Hate Produced the Bone Wars

T rex Rocks

Fossil Fraud Foisted, then Fossil Fraud Foiled

And finally, a little paleontology humor. We wouldn’t understand if we didn’t have fossils. Happy Fossil Day.

T rex Rocks

In my April 29, 2019 post, Big Bone Business on eBay, I noted that the fossilized skeleton of a baby Tyrannosaurus rex was for sale on eBay for $2.95 million. The seller recently ended the auction–apparently no takers. Should they repost the offering please do humankind and science a favor: buy it and have it shipped directly to a natural history museum. On the eBay posting, the seller hyped the auction with some cock and bull about not wanting this treasure to fall into the hands of a museum, which “has limited opening hours and might be prohibitively expensive for some to visit”. Rather, the seller stated, “Once put ONLINE, the entire World can enjoy it 24/7/365.” OK, give it to a museum while stipulating that the museum posts the images online. Then everybody can enjoy the photos, and interested paleontologists can access the real deal for close study.

Only 20 relatively intact sets of T rex stone bones exist overall, and there is recent good news about several Tyrannosaurus specimens that are safely ensconced for scientific study and public awe.

Sue, the most intact specimen found to date, is about 90% complete and continues to terrify and delight museum goers at the Field Museum in Chicago. Since December she resides in the Museum’s new Griffin Halls of Evolving Planet and is now positioned in a less crouched and more aggressive position than before. Because her supporting armature allows temporary removal of any of her bones individually for intense study, a generation of paleontologists has learned much about T rex’s posture and movement and has even estimated her body weight.

Opening with much anticipation and fanfare on June 8, the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, displays “The Nation’s T Rex“. It is posed to soon devour a hapless Triceratops. This T rex is on 50-year lease from the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns it since the fossils were discovered on federal land in Montana.

A few months earlier came a full scientific description of Scotty, a T rex originally discovered in 1991, the year after Sue surfaced. Full-scale excavation of Scotty began in 1994 and proceeded slowly because of the extremely dense rock encasing the specimen. This and other difficulties delayed the publication of a complete analysis until now. Investigators estimate that Scotty lived into his early 30’s (extremely long for a dinosaur) and, based on the length and girth of his bones, stretched 40 feet from snout to tail tip and might have slightly outweighed Sue. I doubt, however, that either one obsessed much over their weight. A full-scale replica of Scotty recently went on display at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, near its discovery site.

In addition to nicknames such as Sue and Scotty, other T rex specimens sport monikers such as Stan, Bucky, Tristan, and Trix, although the sex of any dinosaur has yet to be determined. Supposing Sue was actually male, I wonder if his name predisposed him to bar fights a la Shel Silverstein and Johnny Cash? If so, what do you think the bar bullies had been drinking? Who do you think would have won?