“Rise of” My Interest in Paleoanthropology

“What do we have today…well we have more monkeys than we can put in a barrel” – Dr. Relethford

I just had the pleasure of watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a great movie that I would like the comment on, but the rest of the post will address my interest in paleoanthropology.

Film and Related Entertainment

As I said before, I found the movie to be very entertaining. Having not seen any of the original Planet of the Ape movies (something I plan on fixing) I clearly cannot comment on how well it fit the established story line. But, it fit the story I was expecting. Apes get smart, smart apes rebel against us silly humans. There was type casting in this movie that had me chuckling on the inside. Tom Felton’s character was full of hate and snarled too often, Mike Dopud had a gun, and David Hewlett could never catch a break. That aside I thought it was just all around entertaining, good story, good acting and fun apes!

If you want other ape inspired entertainment I would recommend reading Micheal Crichton’s Congo. Not my favorite of his works but considering he wrote Jurassic Park that is not surprising. It is a good read, and since this is mostly a geology blog  I will mention that he does attempt to include some geology into the story. Diamonds, volcanoes, all those good things!

Paleoanthropology / Biological Anthropology

My interest in the subject of human evolution began first semester freshman year of college. I was enrolled in Introduction to Biological Anthropology taught by Dr. Relethford (Author of Reflections Of Our Past and The Human Species: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology). I had enrolled in the class because it was a prerequisite for paleoanthropology, and with the goal of study dinosaurs, I figured any paleontological experience would help me along.

Learning about the behaviors of various monkeys and apes was certainly interesting (see Chimp Generosity) and kept me excited for class (as did Dr. Relethford’s endless stories and statements, some of which I wrote in my notes, many I sadly did not), but it wasn’t until we started discussing human evolution more directly that I really was ‘turned on’ so to speak. My interest is hard to explain, as a lover of paleontology, human evolution is a natural branch of the subject, but there is something about studying where we come from that has a certain beauty and appeal to it. I get to study the past through fossils, but not just any past, my past.

From Proconsul, one of the earliest apes (I recommend reading The Ape in the Tree by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman) to Ardipithecus ramidus (a personal favorite of mine, data was released in 2009 in the journal Science) the human line is full of incredible species that leave no shortage of puzzling questions to study. Of course we can’t leave the Neanderthals (see recent genetic research) and Homo floresiensis better known as the Hobbit.

Homo floresiensis is an especially interesting individual.  Its small size, isolate located and recent existence has ignited heated debate in the scientific community (see Hobbit or Deformed Human?). I am actually about to start reading A New Human by Mike Morwood in order to get a better understanding of this unique critter.

As I moved on from Introduction to Biological Anthropology to Human Origins and eventually paleoanthropology and Human Skeletal Anatomy, I gained a stronger desire to study human evolution in my career. But I am a geologist, and I have always wanted to study dinosaurs since I was about four. Well, I have already placed myself on a career path to study paleontology from the geology side of the field. I have since reconciled myself with the idea that I can apply my geological skills to the collecting and studying human evolution just as easily as I can dinosaurs (aside from the fact that the location of human ancestors makes the field anything but easy!). However I welcome any advice on how to mesh my interests!

By now I am just rambling, tossing out genus/species in an attempt to convince myself that I am not as rusty as I know I am. It has been a couple of years since I took paleoanthropology and it is time I dust of my copies of The Human Lineage and Humankind Emerging and brush up on my history.

“I’m not saying you would say…Oh My God, there is a Neanderthal on the subway!” – Dr. Relethford

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An Alluring Glow: Accretionary Wedge – 37

“Fascinating is a word I use for the unexpected.”- Spock

Geology has many wondrous or “sexy” things to share with the world; the Grand Canyon (above), glaciers, volcanos, the list goes on! There is a lot of romanticism in geology as well, even the phrase “Its what’s on the inside that counts” can apply! For example:

Last fall I was enrolled in my Mineralogy course and as an aside, the topic of Flourescent Minerals came about. It had no relation to whatever lesson we were discussing, but the topic was intriguing so my professor took out several sample of rocks that fluoresced and we proceeded to turn the room lights off, and the UV lights on.

Well I was enamored, the beauty that came forth from some otherwise dull exteriors was amazing! There were yellows, pinks, oranges, blues, reds and of course the greens!


A few weeks later, our Geology Club sponsored a day trip to the Franklin Fluorescent Mineral Mine in New Jersey to collect some of theses rocks for ourselves. This trip not only served to start my collection of flourescent minerals, but it also sent me on a path that makes much more sense for a studying paleontologist like myself, fluorescent fossils!

It makes perfect sense of course, calcite and other minerals common in fossils are among those that fluoresce, so why wouldn’t there be fluorescent fossils? Well it wasn’t untill I saw the exhibit at the mine with the glowing ammonites and other critters that it struck home. I immediately started searching the literature for any research that may have been done on fluorescent fossils. Sadly there really hasn’t been all that much. UV light has been used on exquisite fossils to show features hidden to the naked eye, but that is just about it.

I also played with the fossils in my collection, and those in the university’s collection and found a handful of specimens that did fluoresce to some extent. Before/After photos posted below.




For now I do not have the resources to pursue fluorescent minerals/fossils with any kind of research, but I certainly hope to study their alluring glow sometime in my career!


If you want some more information on fluorescent minerals I would recommend these books:

Collecting Fluorescent Minerals by Stuart Schneider

The World of Fluorescent Minerals by Stuart Schneider


Part of the current Accretionary Wedge: Sexy Geology! Cheers!

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How to Build a Dinosaur: My Musings

“God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs…” – Dr. Malcolm

“Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth…” – Dr. Sattler

I have recently read Dr. Horner’s book How to Build a Dinosaur and I thought I would put some of my thoughts to “paper”.

Ever since I was four I’ve wanted to become a paleontologist (see below). Dinosaurs fascinated me like they do most children, but I was one of those rare birds that never lost that fascination. If anything, it grew!

When I thought of my future as a paleontologist, I had a grandiose image of trekking through the Gobi Desert or maybe more appropriate for this post, the Hell Creek Formation, searching for never before discovered dinosaurs (or at least some well preserved ones!). The image would have been incomplete of course without my Indiana Jones (or Dr. Grant) hat. Having read Dr. Horner’s recent book, How to Build a Dinosaur, I can’t help but acknowledge that dinosaur paleontology, and paleontology in general, has gone beyond deserts and old bones, and into a world of labs and biology.

In the book, Dr. Horner brilliantly introduces the reader to fairly recent discoveries which have begun to merge paleontology with modern biology, genetics, embryology and evolutionary developmental biology. Starting with Dr. Schweitzer’s discovery of tissue in a Tyrannosaur bone, to Dr. Horner’s idea of creating a Chickenosaurus, the book becomes more and more biological. Simply put, I’m a little frightened.

I approach paleontology more from a geological viewpoint than that of biology. I can understand the basic language when reading a paper with genetics or molecular biology but deep down I’m still a geologist. My greatest pleasure is being out in the field, hunting for new things, hopefully dinosaur bones if life treats me well.

I guess I am just worried as to where I will end up in the field of paleontology. I’m still young, still have plenty of years of education ahead of me still so I’m sure I can adapt to the changing field, but that won’t change my desire to be out in the field. Dr. Horner’s book which has brought about this mild crisis of the future, also brings some relief. Even as paleontology and biology collide, there is still a need to discover new specimens. Individuals such as Dr. Schweitzer certainly can’t try to find dinosaur tissue in bone if no one finds the bones first!

Alright, this is the 3rd time I’ve tried writing this post and it is working in my head better than in print so I’m going to summarize a few thoughts and call it quits.

Horner’s book is well written and does a fine job, in my opinion, to introduce some of the new frontiers in paleontology. I highly recommend that anyone read this book, especially if you have an interest in paleontology, biology or both. Maybe the book will give you something to think about as it has done for me. Maybe it will give you a new research idea or focus (as it has also done for me).


Some other Paleo-Genetics related items. A recent paper has been released suggesting genetic evidence for interbreeding between Anatomically Modern Humans and Neanderthals. I have the paper but haven’t sat down with it yet. Here is a summary article.

If you find that the Neanderthal article peaks your interest, I would recommend Reflections of Our Past by Dr. Relethford. I have had the opportunity to take a few paleoanthropology classes with Dr. Relethford and he is a very intelligent individual. His book is well worth the read. Note its a primarily genetics based book.

That is all for now. I’d love to hear anyone’s opinions on this new frontier in paleontology! Cheers!

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A Puzzling Print

“There is a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.”- Spock

For the past year, my adviser and I have been working on mapping the Jurassic aged dinosaur tracks in the Connecticut River Valley. We came across one pair of tracks that does not appear to fit with what we typically see. I was hoping maybe I could get some opinions from others!

They may just be anomalous holes in the bedrock, the site is filled with them, but this pair seems to show similar shape and are oriented somewhat inwards towards each other.  Another option I have considered is that these may just be degraded forms of the typical dinosaur tracks but I don’t buy that. Maybe some sort of crocodilian track? The paleoenvironment does appear to indicate either a lake or swamp environment.

I’d welcome any comments with regards to these possible tracks. Thanks in advance!

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Adirondack Anorthosite

“The best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks.”  - My professors and whoever invented the saying!

I would like to reiterate that I am still a student of geology and my “specialty” is by no means petrology, however I’d like to show some photographs from a recent escapade through the Adirondacks to look at some Anorthosites. This summer, I accompanied one of my professors on a few trips to scout out some rocks for future trips. For me, it was a chance to see some new rocks and learn a few things along the way.

For anyone who has a copy or would like to find one, my professor and I followed the trip guide in the “Field Trip Guide for the 67th Annual Meeting of the New York State Geological Association“, trip A2.

Unlike our previous expedition to Warrensburg, NY where we checked out some exceptional marble outcrops, this tripped lacked the visual wow-factor that the marble possessed (though the Adirondacks provide beautiful landscapes!). The anorthosites provide a different sort of intrigue. They are relatively uncommon (unless you want to travel to the moon), and they are poorly understood from what I have been able to gather from my studies.

Anorthosites are characterized as being predominately plagioclase feldspar, about 90% or more. For a better understanding of these rocks I’d refer you Ashwal 1993 where he describes the forms in which anorthosites are found (Archean plutons, Proterozoic massif plutons, lunar, etc) and possible explanation for the formation. I won’t bother trying to overextend my understanding of the topic. Time for photographs!

Stop 1 – Metanorthosite of the Westport Dome

Image of the Anorthosite at Stop 1.

Closer view of the Anorthosite at Stop 1. Note the tiny garnet in the center. The garnets were rare at this stop but more common at other stops.

Close up view of one of the large plagioclase crystals at Stop 1. Note the diagnostic striations! Parts of this crystal appear iridescent making me believe it is Labradorite.

Stop 2 – Anorthositic Gneiss

Anorthositic Gneiss at Stop 2. Similar in many respects to Stop 1 but here we see hints of foliation and much more garnet.

Closer view of the foliation at Stop 2. Note there is a higher concentration of Garnets than what we saw at the first stop.

This rock was located at another portion of Stop 2. Referred to in the guide book at a Jotunite.  It is described as being possible residual liquid from the Anorthosites.

Stop 5 – Gabbroic and Anorthositic Gneisses

Rock at Stop 5. For people like me not overly familiar with Anorthositic rocks, they began to all look alike at this point. The changes I did typically see was in garnet frequency and size. In this case, larger garnets and fewer of them.

Just a close up view of the garnets at Stop 5.

Alright so by now you’ve seen a number of photographs of Anorthosites (and garnets!) but you’re probably wondering what happened to Stops 3 and 4. Stops 3 and 6 were both Wollastonite mines requiring prior permission (which we did not have) to enter and look around. Stop 4 was supposed to be a Marble Xenolith in a Jotunite rock. This stop required scrambling up the outcrop off the side of US Route 9 and climbing over a fence to look at an outcrop  overlooking the Northway. We looked briefly but after not finding anything that looked like the marble xenolith we decided just to continue on.

I hope these photographs were of interest! I know I certainly enjoyed seeing anorthosites for myself. Cheers!

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The Unknown Canyon: Accretionary Wedge – 36

For this month’s Accretionary Wedge, Geosciblog asks:

“What do you regret leaving behind at a geological locality?

In other words, what samples, specimens, or even photographs do you regret “not getting enough of”?”

This past February, I had the pleasure of traveling to Death Valley, CA for a 12-day field course through SUNY Oneonta. On our last full day, we had the opportunity to choose where we wanted to explore, and having read a few hiking guide entries, I decided to hike part of Marble Canyon (36.610386° N, 117.240600° W)

My first ‘wow’ moment occurred when I stumbled across a fantastic zone of crinoid hash. Now crinoids are nothing new to me, I live in New York so crinoid fossils are a way of life, but these particular specimens were fairly large, deformed!. I had assumed that with all the guidebook entries, and some of the remarkable geology present in the canyon, that there would have been more work done on the area. Sadly I was mistaken, and it is because of this, that I wish I had more rock samples, photos and most of all, data.


In this case, I had no shortage of photographs (thought I certainly could have improved the quality), what I really regret is I took absolutely no measurements. None! I was too lost in my “free day” to think that I should try to determine the amount of deformation displayed.

The fossils were certainly interesting, but what really captured my attention was isolated cobbles/boulders of solid white marble that littered the wash. It looks pretty nondescript in sample photograph, but in the sun this marble was absolutely gorgeous. Nearly all calcite as far as I have been able to tell, the rock shone brightly in light. I only took a small sample home, and my first attempt at creating a thin section was unsuccessful. In hindsight I should have collected more, or at least larger samples.

I never found the marble in outcrop form, it must have been further up in the canyon but someday I’m going back there to find it! Moral of the story for me is that if I find something in the field that really captures my interest, I should do everything I can to collect as much data, photographs, and samples, in order to satisfy any inquires I may have in the future.

Anyways, that is enough ramblings for my first post, I think I’ll end this with a couple more photographs from the canyon.

This is my first blog post so I welcome any constructive suggestions for the future! Enjoy!

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