Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.
As you know from Digging Deep for Leadership, each year 12 high school students from across Oklahoma participate in Paleo Expedition - a hands-on two-week paleontological experience in Black Mesa. This year Taylor Hanson and Zane Woods, two of our Board of Visitors members, decided to visit the site to do a little digging of their own! And of course, we were thrilled to have them.
Wait! It gets better. Hanson has chronicled the experience in a four-page story that will appear in the summer edition of Tracks, the museum newsletter. And today, we’re offering you a sneak peek! So relax, pull up a chair and lose yourself in the words of Taylor Hanson.
In the Footsteps of Dinosaurs
After our introduction to the site we were anxious to get to work and be of some service. At the front edge of the quarry was a cluster of earth, which had recently been coated with thick layers of plaster carefully molded around it to protect the fossil during transportation before being examined at the museum.
Now that the team had a couple of extra willing strong backs, Zane and I set out to perform the task of carefully flipping the nearly 300-pound cluster of earth that was half in plaster, in order to finish the preparatory process of chiseling away the remaining sediment for transport.
We set out to perform this simple task with smiles on our face and a not-so-small streak of nervousness - knowing that in a matter of minutes we could be responsible for destroying millions of years of time-protected fossil and a fair bit of labor by our hosts. Thankfully with close instruction and a healthy heave, two science tourists were able to perform the task successfully (and greatly relieved to have done so).
Over the period of the afternoon we took on whatever tasks we could. We joined the team in the detailed and dusty job of excavating one inch at a time the excess soil and clay, each clinging to the bottom of the fossils earthen cluster, and I enjoyed every scuffed knuckle and dust-coated wipe of my brow.
All around me I saw a team of passionate people putting their years of dedicated study and practice into action, carefully unearthing a new part of history. To be among them brush and pick in hand as a total novice getting the chance to share in that discovery was absolutely incredible.
Amazing, right? Now, we know what you’re thinking. Where are the other three pages?! To read the rest of Hanson’s story, pick up a copy of Tracks - available at the end of July in the museum lobby. Or better yet, become a museum member! We’ll even mail it to you. Either way, you won’t want to miss this article. Because whether you’re a lover of paleontology, Oklahoma or Hanson, there’s something for everyone in this rich recollection.
Thanks to viral videos like “Pizza to Supermodel,” we’re all familiar with the power of Photoshop. But did you know that scientists use Photoshop too? Take a look.
Impressive, right? As you saw in the video, invertebrate paleontologists use the same software as top advertisers – but you won’t find them airbrushing supermodels.
As the name suggests, invertebrate paleontology specializes in the study of fossilized invertebrates. To study these small organisms, paleontologists must use a sophisticated method of photography to properly capture all aspects of a given fossil. While scientists do not use programs like Photoshop to transform an image, they do adjust lighting details to reveal parts of the fossils unseen to the naked eye.
Because cameras must choose a point of focus in close-range shots, the entire fossils cannot be in focus at once. That is why scientists snap a series of photographs – up to 100 per specimen – in which the focus continuously shifts by minimal increments. Often this process can take up to 20 minutes per specimen.
“Based on what taxa we are imaging, we usually take three or four standard views of an object – dorsal, anterior, lateral and so on,” said Roger Burkhalter, invertebrate paleontology collection manager. “Each view takes a couple of minutes to position and focus, then we take multiple images.”
After all of these images are obtained, they are uploaded to a computer. Then, Helicon Focus software compresses all of the images at once. In doing so, the program merges the focused portions of each photograph. Then Photoshop is used to adjust brightness and contrast levels. In the end, the paleontologist is left with one crisp, high-resolution image.
According to Burkhalter, the Sam Noble Museum has been using this method of stacking for 5-6 years. Due to critical advances in software and camera hardware, the department has only grown more successful in image stacking with time.
So, what becomes of a fossil’s cover shoot? Many will be published in articles in specialized scientific journals that document the fossils, but most are stored so that they can be accessed for later research or identification. But now, for the first time, we’re bringing our most exquisite work to you through Formed in Stone: The Natural Beauty of Fossils.
These portraits and their respective “models” will be on display to wow museum visitors with an array of dazzling geometric patterns. From July 4 to Jan. 4, 2015, guests can enjoy a wide variety of spectacular of fossils ranging from 80 to 455 million years old.
“The fossils have a natural beauty that can be appreciated by the public, regardless of their level of interest in the biology and evolution of extinct animals,” said Steve Westrop, invertebrate paleontology curator. “We hope that the images will spark curiosity, and that visitors will be inspired to learn more from this exhibit, the permanent exhibits at the museum and our website. “
Added bonus! We’re offering complimentary admission on opening day to celebrate. So whether you’re in it for the art, photography or science, join us from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. July 4 in admiring the beautiful handiwork from these tools of the trade.
In the United States alone, museums employ more than 400,000 people and directly contribute $21 billion to the economy. Impressive, right? Despite these striking statistics, museums are still struggling. In fact, more than two-thirds of museums reported economic distress in 2012.
This sad dino by Roamin’ Doodles understands the pain.
Fortunately, there is something museum’s can do. The American Alliance of Museums offers accreditation to institutions dedicated to excellence and high professional standards. But financial motives aren’t the only reason a museum would apply for accreditation.
According to the AAM website, some of the benefits of accreditation include:
→ Increased credibility with donors and funding agencies
→ A clear sense of purpose and understanding
→ A valuable tool in lobbying local and state governments
→ Increased level of professionalism
→ Improved relationships with other museums
Sounds great, right? Of all the natural history museums in the United States, only 8 percent are accredited – the Sam Noble Museum included. That’s right! In 2014, the Sam Noble Museum was awarded accreditation for the fourth consecutive time. Of course, not all institutions who apply are accepted, which is why this is such a significant achievement.
“This means the museum continues to meet the National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums,” explained museum director Michael Mares.
The museum endured a rigorous application process that consisted of a year of self-study and site visits by peer reviewers. It is not uncommon for the process of accreditation to take up to three years.
So, what does this mean for you?
It means we are dedicated to preserving Oklahoma’s cultural and natural history, and we’ve been commended for our efforts to do so. Stronger relationships with other museums could also mean more loans for research and more traveling exhibits. As you can see, accreditation is a big deal. Don’t belive us? Check out this congratulatory video from AAM president Ford Bell.
The certificate of accreditation, framed and matted just beside Redbud Café, is on display for all Oklahomans to see, so they can continue to have confidence in the nationally recognized quality of their museum.
“It all started with a Forensic Files episode. They used diatoms to link the assailants and the crime scene, and I just thought they were so beautiful. I love how something so small can have such large applications.”
Shelly Wu’s fascination with diatoms began her sophomore year at Loyola University New Orleans. As a biology major, Wu knew she wanted to pursue a life of science, though lacked a specific focus. One evening at home, Wu stumbled upon the NBC series that would lead her to specialize in diatoms.
Video, Diatoms in Action
Diatoms are a major group of algae that appear in nearly every major body of water. Though small in size, these microorganisms have big applications – like forensics, water quality, even filtering beer. Diatoms often attach to turtle shells and establish themselves as part of a microhabitat, which is of particular interest to scientists.
Currently, only two papers have been published on turtle shell diatoms – both on Amazonian species. But Wu hopes to change that. Thanks to a prestigious summer internship funded by the National Science Foundation, Wu was awarded $4,000 to research diatoms on Oklahoma turtle shells beneath Sam Noble Museum herpetology curator Cameron Siler.
Wu in the field
“During such a difficult time to educate younger generations of researchers about the importance and incredibly broad utility of these collections, it is always exciting to see students develop novel approaches to working in natural history museums,” said Siler.
Through her research, which began in March, Wu hopes to answer three major questions. Do different turtle species support different species of diatoms? Are diatom species on a turtle host selective for particular microhabitats on the turtle’s shell? How do diatom communities on the common snapping turtle and red-eared slider vary across different regions of the US? To answer these questions, Wu is sampling, analyzing and comparing the microhabitats of five Oklahoma turtle species.
Wu studies Oklahoma’s common snapping turtle
“I sample six specific areas of the shell using a brush and circular plastic tube,” Wu explained. “I place the tube over the area, circle the brush 10 times and move to the next spot. Then I use a light microscope to examine the sample.”
In order to access the needed research material, Wu works closely with Liz Bergey from the Oklahoma Biological Survey and museum herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters. As a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, Wu’s work will also help to develop her master’s thesis on the possible relationship between diatoms, algae dispersion and turtle migration.
“Down the road it would be nice to know which diatoms are on live turtles,” said Wu. “It could help us better understand the relationship between algae dispersion and turtle migration.”
If you’ve driven by the Sam Noble Museum at any point since November, you may have noticed a rectangular, grass prairie sitting just behind the museum. No, no – we aren’t slacking on our chores. The tall brush houses several species of birds, some of which are extremely difficult to observe and track. That’s why a team of ornithologists hit the field last week to do a bit of bird banding before the March mowing.
Volunteer Robin Urquhart holds a Lincoln’s Sparrow
It all began last fall, when Joe Grzybowski, ornithology research associate, discovered several species of sparrows hunting for food in the tall brush. One of these species, the LeConte’s sparrow, is an exceptionally secretive animal that researchers seldom stumble upon. In fact, only 3,000 LeConte’s sparrows have ever been banded, only one of which was recaptured at a later time.
A LeConte’s Sparrow outside the museum
Ornithologists engage in banding as a means of tracking species migration and monitoring populations. Each metal band, issued by the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory, contains a serial number and is sized for each species. Fortunately, Grzybowski has a banding permit and was able to lead the team through the process.
“A small conscious change in landscaping practices can help support a variety of wildlife,” said Tamaki Yuri, ornithology collection manager. “For example, the hawks we have seen around the field this winter are evidence of healthy populations of grassland birds and small mammals in the field.”
The team bands sparrows outside the museum
In just two hours, the team banded six sparrows of four different species – two LeConte’s, two Lincoln’s, one Song and one Savannah sparrows. Given the high winds and limited time, Yuri says she is pleased with the results. The team will use this information to track population growth for the area in coming years.
“If these birds know that the grasses exist, they will come back next year,” said Yuri, “and it is important to have more research on the LeConte’s Sparrow.”
Yuri holding a LeConte’s Sparrow
Christie Godec looms over a broad, L-shaped desk in a black leather chair, staring down a binocular microscope with forceps in hand. Carefully, she picks through a thin layer of soil and rock – watching, waiting. At last, she unearths something of interest, what appears to be the bone or tooth from our shared prehistoric past. Slowly, she drops the fragment into a miniature, cork-sealed vial, scribbles on a small paper chart and returns to the tray before her.
Godec sifts through sandy soil
Such is the work of a “micropicker”, a volunteer in the vertebrae paleontology department who tirelessly sifts through gallons of soil to find shards of prehistoric remains. The work is slow and repetitive, but rewarding. In 30 to 60 minutes, Godec can process one coffee scooper filled with soil, typically unearthing a couple dozen fragments in that time. With no formal training in paleontology, she knows only what fossil preperator Kyle Davies has taught her – and that’s all she needs.
Five-gallon buckets waiting to be picked
Five years ago, Godec moved to Norman, Okla. after retiring from her job as a dental hygienist. She decided to get involved with the museum after receiving a volunteerism flier from her daughter, who works for the University of Oklahoma’s continued education department. Right away, she was hooked.
“It’s like an Easter egg hunt every time I come in,” Godec said.
A lot goes into micropicking. First, professionals sanitize the incoming soil to eliminate pests, which can damage the facilities and collections. Then volunteers must sift through the soil to salvage the specimens, which are often smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen. Finally, undergraduate students mount the specimens to the head of a pin, which they drive into the cork that seals the vial. At last, the specimen is stored in collections for future use in research.
A mounted specimen rests on top of a pin
As you might guess, many volunteers do not appreciate the tedious sifting required of micropicking, but it is vital to understanding prehistoric ecosystems. Godec believes her previous skills as a hygienist make her an ideal picker, as she is accustomed to working in microenvironments that demand a detail-oriented mindset.
“For me, it’s fun,” said Godec. “Dental hygiene requires a lot of patience and repetitive work, but it’s always different. Every tray is different, too.”
One of many micropicking cabinets
Currently, there are just two micropickers at the museum, with two more in training. The first round of spring docent training will begin this weekend on Feb. 22, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. So, if you are interested in gaining hands-on experience like Godec, check out our volunteerism page for information about upcoming opportunities or drop by on Saturday! Also, be sure and sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates on this year’s volunteer of the year award and banquet.
1914: The first stone of the Lincoln Memorial is placed in Washington D.C. Charlie Chaplain stars in his second film, “The Tramp”. Doctors complete the first successful blood transfusion in Brussels, and World War I begins. When looking back on this most historic year, one critical event is often overlooked– the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon.
The Passenger Pigeon in 1898
With a population between 3 and 5 billion birds, the Passenger Pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly even the world. Written accounts describe how flocks would darken the sky for hours and days, and how the beating wings sent a chilling draft down from the sky. However, in just a few decades, the species became extinct.
Passenger Pigeon shooting illustration
Human exploitation, namely hunting and commerce, destroyed nearly every major nesting area over the course of 40 years. No one documented a successful mass nesting during this time, which had in the past contributed greatly to the survival of the species. This bird occurred only in North America and was no stranger to the Sooner State.
Prior to the twentieth century, the Passenger Pigeon often frequented eastern Oklahoma during winter. It is even possible that a handful of lesser-known Oklahoma landmarks were named after this species: Pigeon School (Cherokee County), Pigeon Roost Church (Choctaw and Seminole counties), Pigeon Creek (Latimer and Le Flore counties) and Pigeon Mountain (Le Flore County).
Le Flore County has two sites named for the Passenger Pigeon
Unfortunately, the story of the Passenger Pigeon is not the only tale of exploitation and extinction. Now, The Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum are using this tragedy as a cautionary tale through a notable conservation initiative, Project Passenger Pigeon.
According to the project website, the international campaign seeks to promote awareness about the Passenger Pigeon and other endangered species while encouraging people to take action against human-caused extinction. Ultimately, the project is about fostering biodiversity by prompting people to question their role in the larger ecological community.
As a strong advocate of wildlife conversation, The Sam Noble Museum commends the work being done by Project Passenger Pigeon and other similar efforts. From Sept. 13 to Jan. 18, the Sam Noble Museum will showcase portraits of engendered and extinct species, including the Passenger Pigeon, as part of the exhibit Rare.
Red Wolf (Canis rufus), photographed at Great Plains Zoo, Sioux Falls, S.D.
If Project Passenger Pigeon has inspired you to get involved, there are several environmental advocacy groups to join: The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Sierra Club, Conservation International and Wildlife Conservation Society, to name a few. Of course, joining an organization isn’t the only way to support conservation efforts.
"You could become informed about conservation issues, volunteer in community environmental projects or become a citizen scientist,” suggests Janet Braun, staff curator. “You could also join or donate to a museum or conservation organization while living and promoting a conservation lifestyle.”
Scientists estimate that there are over 8.7 million species of living organisms on Earth at this time. Biodiversity is a precious thing that must be protected, as the tale of the Passenger Pigeon reminds us. They say that history always repeats itself - but by promoting the conservation of species and habitat, perhaps we can build a better tomorrow from yesterday’s mistakes.
White Gyrfalcon by George Sutton, Date Unknown
Wait, art AND science?
Art and science are often viewed as polar disciplines, pursuits that seldom overlap and engage opposite ends of the brain - but it’s unlikely that George M. Sutton, exceptional illustrator and accomplished scientist, would agree. Throughout his lifetime, Sutton made invaluable contributions to both ornithology and art through his unbelievably realistic sketches of wildlife, which are currently available for public viewing.
So, what should I expect?
To be amazed. The Sam Noble Museum houses 3,500 of Sutton’s 20,000 paintings and has selected 75 astounding watercolor portraits for the George M. Sutton: Exploring Art and Science exhibit, which transforms the simplistic, streamlined gallery space into a lush, exotic hub of dazzling plumage. The exhibit primarily features artwork from Sutton’s Mexico, Arctic and United State’s expeditions and a few personal items of Sutton’s, including his treasured paint box.
What kinds of birds did Sutton paint?
Although this collection features a dazzling array of species from several exotic destinations, the exhibit is bound together by the passion of one extraordinary man. You can expect to see a diverse array of species in nearly every imaginable landscape, from arctic tundra to Mexican jungle.
Who is George Sutton, anyways?
George Miksch Sutton, a renowned artist, writer, explorer and teacher, followed his love of ornithology to the University of Oklahoma in 1952. During his lifetime, Sutton traveled on many expeditions in the continental United States, as well as to the Artic north, Mexico and South America. By the time of his death, he had written 12 books, over 200 scientific journal articles and illustrated at least 18 books. Impressive, right? Additionally, the George Miksh Sutton Avian Research Center was founded in 1983 to aid in aviary conservation.
Is it really worth a trip to the museum?
Absolutely. It isn’t everyday you get to see top-notch watercolor paintings alongside state-of-the-art science education, and that’s not something you want to miss. The exhibit will be on display from Jan. 18 to April 20, so there is plenty of time to plan your family daytrip. Author H. Jackson Brown Jr. once said, “Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity.” He’s right, you know. Don’t wait – flock in today.
Black-bellied Plovers by George Sutton, Aug. 1966
Long before dinovators and a famous bronze mammoth, the Sam Noble Museum was little more than the odds and ends of various university collections. The history of the Sam Noble Museum is a tale filled with disaster, frustration and never-ending setbacks, but it is also a tale of persistence and passion.
When the University of Oklahoma first began accumulating artifacts and specimens in the early 1900s, the artifacts were housed in a single building that served all administrative and teaching functions. Then, the museum was nothing more than a loose collection of goods numbering in the thousands. Tragically, the administrative building burned down several times during OU’s early history, and nearly all collections were lost by one particularly devastating fire in 1903.
Collections were once housed in administrative buildings
During the 1920s and 1930s, the remainder of the collection passed through a slew of buildings, being stored wherever possible in attics, basements and stadiums. In these conditions, the artifacts and specimens could not receive the preservation care they needed, nor were they available for public viewing. However, with the Great Depression underway, funds were scarce, and the collection would remain scattered across campus for at least seven decades.
A WPA project in western Oklahoma during the 1930s
A Work’s Progress Administration effort yielded a large collection of dinosaur fossils. In 1939, J. Willis Stovall, scientific leader of the WPA excavation team, articulated the university’s need for a permanent housing structure for the collection’s artifacts and specimens. In 1943, Stovall became the first curator and director of the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, part of which was moved into three abandoned ROTC buildings.
The first museum building was the university’s former ROTC headquarters
In 1953, Stovall passed away, and the museum was renamed The Stovall Museum of Science and History. However, the collection would remain in the same dilapidated buildings for the half a century. In 1969, collections from various departments were combined to strengthen fundraising efforts.
A leaky roof and limited space made storing collections difficult in the ROTC barn
In 1983, Michael Mares became curator of the museum and pushed plans for a museum building, moving its priority rank from number 116 to number 35 on the university’s building list. Around this time, Mares worked with legislators to change the museum’s name to the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, making it the official natural history museum for the state of Oklahoma.
Mares circa 1983
The museum collected a $5 million bond from the city of Norman and $15 million from a statewide higher education bond, but a new building would cost $42.5 million. Just as Oklahoma supported the museum through the passing of crucial bonds, the people of the state, led by alumni of the university, rallied together to make this visionary project a reality.
“The funds were raised privately, with everything from school children across Oklahoma, to donors large and small, “ Mares said. “There were several $1 million donations, and the largest donation was from the various foundations of the Noble family, which ultimately totaled $10 million. The only thing the Noble family asked was for the museum to be named in honor of Sam Noble, who had passed away while we were building the museum.”
The Sam Noble Museum opened at its current location on May 1, 2000 and welcomed a record-breaking 62,269 visitors in the first month. Although it took over a century, the fragmented collection that was once reduced to ash became a leader among natural history museums. The road was long and difficult, but now the Sam Noble Museum is finally home sweet home.
For more information about the museum’s history, be sure to check out our four-part YouTube series, “Behind the Rain”.
Holiday shopping can be tricky. Instead of trolling the mall for a handful of generic gifts, why not get something a little different this year? As you already know, Excavations the museum store is prime for finding odds and ends that your family and friends will love.
What do Einstein, Darwin, Marie Curie and Nikola Telsa have in common? They all want to be underneath your Christmas tree. Four out of four scientists agree: bobbleheads make fabulous presents.
For the Sci-Fi Fanatic:
Who doesn’t love Dr. Who? More importantly, who doesn’t love this fantastic disappearing tardis mug? No one will ever forget who gave such a wonderful gift.
For the Proud Okie:
Show your Oklahoma pride with this rustic Scissor-Tail Flycatcher coaster. Feel free to grab the wooly mammoth and Apatosaurus matchers while you’re here! All good things come in a set, you know.
For the Christmas-Lover:
Nothing says Christmas quite like an ornament. Excavations has ornaments of all shapes and sizes: wool foxes, glass figurines, ornately painted and plastic dinosaurs for the kids. I guess you could say we’re a one-stop ornament shop.
For the Young at Heart:
I bet Rumble the OKC Thunder mascot would love one of these bison hand puppets for Christmas! Not a Thunder fan? There are also dinos and lions and beavers. Oh my!
Mark your calendars for red-hot savings from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, as Excavations hosts it’s annual holiday sale. Draw for your discount of 15-40% on your entire purchase!
Remember, museum members always receive 20 percent off all purchases at Excavations. No membership? No problem! Sign up now and start saving. Excavations is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. We look forward to seeing you soon!
P.S. Santa told us that museum memberships are going to be a hot gift this year.