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I Miss the Mammoths

V-1739_Mammuthus_3_500

Crown view of a woolly mammoth molar from Bird, northern Manitoba (specimen V-1739; illustration by Debbie Thompson)

Recently, there seem to have been a lot of stories in the media about the remarkable intelligence of elephants. Scarcely a week goes by without a new science story about how elephants are among the few non-human creatures that are self-aware, about their superb communication skills, about the ways in which they care for one another, or about their wonderful memories (it is true: an elephant never forgets). Whenever I see these stories I feel wistful, contemplating the elephants that used to live around here. I imagine how they wandered across the landscape, using their big brains as they communicated about food and predators.

If you are here in still-snowy Winnipeg, you might wonder if I am feeling OK, or you would at least think “what does this have to do with our local situation?” After all, wild elephants live a very long way away, in warm parts of Africa and Asia. Our lack of living elephants is, however, a disparity of time rather than one of geography. Geologically speaking, it is just the blink of an eye since the time when this area was regularly visited by herds of elephants.

A partial mammoth pelvis from southeastern Manitoba (specimen V-2640)

A partial mammoth pelvis from southeastern Manitoba (specimen V-2640; scale is in centimetres and inches)

I am speaking, of course, about mammoths. Although woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) are better-known from Ice Age (Pleistocene) deposits in Siberia, Alaska, and the Yukon, many examples have been found across the Canadian Prairies. Quite a few mammoth bones and teeth have been collected in Manitoba, along with the occasional tooth belonging to their distant cousin the American mastodon (Mammut americanum).

Here at the Museum we have mammoth teeth, vertebrae, limb bones, jaws, and other pieces, collected from many different sites in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Nearly all of these have been found separately in glacial deposits, and there is good evidence that they had been transported and abraded before they were finally deposited. Most of them are not mineralized; they are composed of the original bone and tooth material that was preserved in sand and gravel far below the water table. Some of the bones were still so “fresh” that they stank of rotting mammoth when we started to dry them out for preservation!

Sadly we have not yet found any more complete skeletons, but the fossils we have give excellent evidence that these animals were widespread in this region. They were probably common during the interglacial warm spells, those intervals of milder conditions when the ice sheets receded from this region.

Side view of a mammoth molar from southeastern Manitoba (specimen V-2554)

Side view of a mammoth molar from southeastern Manitoba (specimen V-2554; scale is in centimetres)

Some of our mammoth bones are from sites where associated wood material has been dated to about 40,000 years old, so they date from well before the end of the Ice Age. The last mammoths in North America, however, became extinct about 10,000 years ago, and the very last ones in the world lived on Wrangel Island, Siberia, until just 4,000 years ago (by which time the Egyptians had already constructed some of their pyramids!). We don’t really know why mammoths became extinct, but there seem to have been several factors involved: climate change at the end of the Ice Age and increased hunting by human populations may have been the major causes.

Since the mammoth is often reconstructed as a hairy creature with a “primordial” sort of appearance, you might think that it was not really that similar to modern elephants, but modern scientific information tells us otherwise. We have long known that the teeth and bones of mammoths indicate an affinity to Asian elephants (genus Elephas). Asian elephant teeth, for instance, are much more like mammoth teeth than they are like the distinctive teeth of African elephants (genus Loxodonta). Recently, genetic studies have confirmed the similarity and shared ancestry of mammoths and Asian elephants. Mammoths and Asian elephants shared an ancestor about 5.8-7.8 million years ago, while that shared ancestor diverged from African elephants 6.6-8.8 million years ago.

An incomplete mammoth tusk (specimen V-209)

An incomplete mammoth tusk found northeast of Transcona (Winnipeg), Manitoba (specimen V-209)

Many of the new things we are learning about elephant behaviour seem to apply to both Asian and African elephants. Given what we now know about evolutionary relationships, it must be assumed that mammoths would have had the same sort of intelligence and behavioural traits, and it is possible that even mastodons were somewhat similar. The new information on elephant intelligence is allowing mammoths to be well understood as “living” creatures, even if the attempts to clone them are unsuccessful.

It is saddening that we came so very close, geologically, to seeing those herds of mammoths. Whenever I look at those fossils, whenever I contemplate the tusk of a huge adult or the jaw of a baby mammoth, I miss the animals.

A mammoth scapula (shoulder blade) from southeastern Manitoba (V-2639)

A mammoth scapula (shoulder blade) from southeastern Manitoba (V-2639)

 

 

Slicing the Onion

Downtown Winnipeg, as it has looked so often this winter.

Downtown Winnipeg, as it has looked so often this winter.

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, as part of our Museum lecture course Into the Vault. I was planning to talk about the ancient island shoreline deposits we have been studying in the Churchill area, and as I thought about history and pre-history, I was reminded of an observation I had made during an earlier trip to southwestern Manitoba. In most parts of a relatively flat landscape, the ground surface is the result of processes in the present day and the recent past; it is only where some of that surface is peeled away that we can really see evidence of a deeper past.

The endless horizon in western Manitoba

The endless horizon of a flat landscape in western Manitoba

Our modern landscape is different from all past landscapes.

Our modern landscape is different from all past landscapes.

An abandoned farmhouse at Brockinton, MB

On the surface, we can see evidence of the historic past: an abandoned farmhouse at Brockinton, Manitoba.

Where the earth is split open, along riverbanks and shorelines, and at roadcuts and quarries, we can see its older layers. While the surface usually represents the present, recent past, and relatively recent prehistory, the layers below that surface may be extremely old. Southwestern Manitoba and the Hudson Bay Lowland are both in the part of North America known geologically as the Platform, which has been free for a very long time from disruptive forces such as earthquakes and volcanoes. As a result, the layers are relatively orderly; the sediment was laid down almost horizontally, layer upon layer. Slicing through them vertically looks quite similar to slicing an onion with a knife.*

onion1 onion2 onion3 onion4

As we dig down into the upper surface of the land, below the historic remnants we can see evidence of prehistoric occupation of this region. Almost everyone is familiar with widespread artifacts such as arrowheads, but in some places in southern Manitoba we can see ancient burial mounds or traces of long-past hunting sites.

Calf Mountain, near Morden, is an ancient burial mound.

Calf Mountain, near Morden, is an ancient burial mound. 

Kevin Brownlee examines bison bones at a kill site dating from xxx

Kevin Brownlee examines bison bones at a hunting site dating from about 1200 years ago.

Elsewhere, the cuts in the Earth extend into older layers. Some of these layers are still made of sediment that has not been turned to rock, but they date from the late part of the Ice Age, before people are known to have lived in this part of the world.

Near St. Lazare, a cut bank of till deposited thousands of years ago by a glacier.

Near St. Lazare, Kevin looks at a cut bank is composed of till (sediment) deposited thousands of years ago by a glacier.

If the cut is deep enough, or if a high part of the bedrock reaches up to near the surface, we may see layers that date from long before the Ice Age. For example, along the Manitoba Escarpment there are many places where strata of Cretaceous age can be seen. These beds, dating from the later part of the age of the dinosaurs (roughly 100 million to 66 million years ago), are composed of shale and related rocks made of sediment deposited in the Western Interior Seaway.

In the Wawanesa gorge, the upper sediments are glacial, while the lower ones are from the Late Cretaceous Period and are about XXX million years old.

In the Wawanesa gorge of southwest Manitoba, the upper yellowish sediments are glacial and postglacial, while the lower grey ones are from the Late Cretaceous Period.

If you were to drill a vertical hole into the Earth anywhere in southwestern Manitoba, your drillbit would eventually pass down through the Cretaceous layers into successively older beds of Jurassic, Mississippian, Devonian, Silurian, and Ordovician age (see diagram below). Units of these ages are always in the same order, from youngest at the top to oldest at the bottom, thanks to the simple and straightforward law of superposition and principle of original horizontality. Basically, sediment layers deposited by water or wind tend to be close to horizontal due to gravity, and each layer is laid down on top of the older layers that are already present in an area.

The geological time gaps in the Manitoba record (such as between the Mississippian and Jurassic rocks, where we might have expected deposits from the Pennsylvanian, Permian, and Triassic periods) simply represent intervals in which sediment was not being deposited in this region, and was perhaps being eroded.  Most of our sedimentary rocks were deposited under seawater; the intervals of deposition occurred at times when the sea invaded the middle of the continent, and the gaps in deposition represent times when the sea left this region. We are in the latter sort of situation nowadays, though of course sediment IS still being deposited in one part of the middle of North America: in Hudson Bay.

A west to east geological cross-section through southern Manitoba shows how the older strata are located below younger ones (vertical scale greatly exaggerated).

A west to east geological cross-section through southern Manitoba shows how the older strata are located below younger ones (vertical scale greatly exaggerated). (Image from the Manitoba Geological Survey)

The layers in the diagram above look to be strongly tilted, but this is because the diagram has a 200x exaggeration of the vertical scale, relative to the horizontal. In reality, they are tilted just a few degrees. The tilt is related to their having been deposited on a seafloor that sloped gently toward the centre of the ancient sedimentary basin, which was located to the southwest.

This slight tilt is, however, very important when we consider where we might find particular layers on the surface. Geologists often talk about the rocks of the Platform as having “layer cake stratigraphy.” Like the onion, the layer cake is a useful metaphor. If we imagine a cake plate being tilted, and then the cake being cut parallel to the tabletop, it is obvious that the lower layers of the cake would be visible from above as you move away from the direction of tilting.

Limestone beds in the Fisher Branch area, north of Winnipeg, were deposited during the lower part of the Silurian Period, about 440 million years ago.

Limestone beds in the Fisher Branch area, north of Winnipeg, were deposited during the early part of the Silurian Period, about 440 million years ago.

Similarly, in southern Manitoba we see older layers meeting the ground surface as we move eastward, away from the centre of the sedimentary basin. Although there is Cretaceous bedrock at the surface along the Manitoba Escarpment, the sedimentary rocks in the Winnipeg area are far older. North of Winnipeg we can visit sites that straddle the boundary between the Ordovician and Silurian periods, with Silurian beds about 440 million years old near Fisher Branch, and Ordovician beds 445-450 million years old at Stony Mountain and Stonewall.

The oldest Ordovician sedimentary beds in Manitoba, belonging to the Winnipeg Formation, can be observed toward the eastern side of Lake Winnipeg at places like Manigotagan and Black Island. Just east of these places, however, we reach the bottom of the layer cake. The “cake plate”, if you will, is composed of the very hard, very old rocks of the Precambrian Shield (aka Canadian Shield).

The Ordovician Winnipeg Formation at Black Island, Manitoba, is about xxx million years old.

Sandstones of the Ordovician Winnipeg Formation at Black Island, Manitoba, are about 454-458 million years old.

The Shield rocks are geologically complex, having been formed as mountains were growing, volcanoes erupting, and continents crashing together in this region about 1.8-3.5 billion years ago. Since they were formed by such active processes, they are often folded, faulted, and overturned; as a result we can no longer apply our simple onion/cake metaphors once we reach those rocks. But those comparisons work wonderfully in any of Manitoba’s younger strata!

* The growth of onions is apparently quite different from this age-layering of sediment on the Platform, but it is still a handy visual metaphor.

Curator

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

- Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

 

When I started to work at the Museum just over 20 years ago, my job title said that I was the “Assistant Curator of Geology and Paleontology.” Quite a mouthful, to be sure, and one for which the meaning was not entirely clear. Certainly people could understand the “assistant” part, except that I wasn’t actually the assistant to anyone, since I was also the only staff member in geology and paleontology. Rather, the “assistant” in my title was like that for an assistant professor at the university. It meant that I was on the first rung of progress through a professional career, and if I worked hard then I could look forward to being associate curator, and then full curator.

But what about the “curator” part of the title? What did that mean?

In the early 1990s, curator was not a commonly-used word, to the extent that it seemed like a lot of people had never heard it. I would tell them that I was responsible for the rock, mineral, and fossil collections, and that I created exhibits and answered inquiries. Those were really the things that were emphasized in my job description, and to be honest I didn’t look further than that into what a curator might be.

A curator stands outside a shop named Curator at Stow-on-the-Wold, England (photo by Katie Murphy)

A curator stands outside a shop named Curator at Stow-on-the-Wold, England (photo by Katie Murphy)

Nowadays, of course, it is a popular thing to be a curator. A quick online search of this word reveals more than twenty-five million website results! Out in the world we hear about fashion collections that have been “curated” by particular experts, or about an interior designer acting as “curator” for the objects included in the public rooms of some famous person. When a word goes from obscurity to flavour-of-the-month, it is bound to be diluted and broadened, as I found earlier this autumn when I came upon an art and décor shop called Curator in the west of England. And beyond the realm of objects there are curators of paper documents, content curators who collect and organize information, and curators of the digital world (as demonstrated in this Dilbert cartoon).

But where does the word come from, and how does it lend itself to so many different purposes?

Curator is derived from the Latin curare, to care for, so a curator is a person who takes care of something. In fact, in Scottish legal terms a curator is someone who is the guardian of a minor or mentally ill person. Several other nouns that come from the same root have religious connotations, such as the English curate (an assistant priest), the French curé (a parish priest), and the Curia (the central administration of the Catholic Church). It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the name for our profession gives some evidence of the reverence with which we hold the objects given to our care.

Even if you hear that someone is a curator at a museum, as opposed to all those other types of curators, that still doesn’t necessarily give you a clear idea of what that person might do. I know of English museums where the people called curators are what we would call Collections Specialists at The Manitoba Museum, people who are responsible for the care of collections but not their interpretation. Elsewhere, the curator may be the administrative lead for an entire institution, a position more equivalent to that of our Executive Director. In museums of art, curators may have no responsibility for long-term care of collections; rather, they may be specialists hired as consultants to select and interpret the works for a particular exhibition.

One way of looking at my job, according to an envelope received from a curator at another provincial museum

One way of looking at my job, according to an envelope received from a curator at another provincial museum

And how do all of those other jobs relate to my job, you might ask? If someone asked me nowadays what the tasks are for the Curator of Geology and Paleontology, I would have to say that it includes some of the sorts of work included in every one of those other “curator” jobs! Certainly I have a role in caring for the collections, I do field collecting and select other pieces to add to the collections, and I am involved in the identification and cataloguing of specimens. But I also carry out primary research about certain parts of the collection, which adds to the body of world scientific knowledge, and I publish that research in scientific journals and present it at conferences. I identify rocks and fossils for members of the public and I give lectures to interested groups. And of course I develop exhibits, including the preparation of grant proposals to raise money for particular parts of our galleries.

Writing about my job in this way, it seems like an awful lot.  I guess it is. Manitoba is a very big place, and the Museum has a modest number of dedicated curators whose job it is to cover and represent that territory. Like all the other curators at the Museum I absolutely love this job; the diversity of work is just one of the things that makes it possibly the best job in the world.

 

 

Mud, Glorious Mud?

Scraping away the inch of mud adhered to my kneepads

Scraping away the inch of mud adhering to my knee pads (photo: Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

I have often been told by members of the public that, “it must be so exciting to do paleontological fieldwork.” This is true, it can be very exciting to visit new places, to discover and collect fossils that were previously unknown to science. But often the conditions are such that the fieldwork is more of a necessary evil. It is a step that must be passed to acquire essential specimens, rather than a pleasure in itself.

Last week was a case in point. I had planned to travel to the Grand Rapids Uplands of central Manitoba with Dave Rudkin (Royal Ontario Museum) and Michael Cuggy (University of Saskatchewan) to carry out a bit of additional collecting at some unusual fossil sites. We had chosen late September because (1) the weather is often dry and clear, and (2) the mosquitoes and blackflies have generally been depleted by this time of year.

It turned out that we were only partly right on just one of these assumptions: I don’t think I saw a single mosquito. Their absence was, however, compensated by the swarms of blackflies that descended whenever the wind died down.  And that merciful wind was a chill, damp one, associated with rains that were at times heavy.

Michael contemplates water "ponded" on the gently sloping bedrock surface.

Michael contemplates water “ponded” on the bedrock surface.

We first arrived at the main site on Wednesday afternoon. Under a relatively pleasant overcast sky, we spent several hours splitting rock, but found little in the way of specimens worth taking back to the Museum. By Thursday morning the torrential downpours had begun. These died off by the time we arrived at the site, but we discovered that the gently sloping limestone had been replaced by a “water garden” that combined both pond and waterfall features.

Donning multiple layers for protection from the rain and chill (I recall that I was wearing a t-shirt, flannel shirt, fleece, jean jacket, and rain jacket!), we swept away as much of the water as possible, then settled back into our splitting routine. The standard procedure is to place the chisel along a horizontal zone of weakness in the rock, hammer until the rock begins to split, lever it up with a pry bar, wash mud off the surfaces and examine for fossils.  If no fossils are found, you throw the slab onto the discard pile and start again. After an hour or two this becomes wearying and repetitive. By the time the heavy rain returned at 2 pm, at least some of the chill from the rock surface had transferred itself into my knees and back, and I was grateful that we could stop.

Michael and me working along a damp bedrock surface. (photo: Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

Michael and me, at work along a damp bedrock surface (photo: Dave Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

By Friday the rain had ceased, but much of its moisture seemed to have attached itself to any clay that remained on and adjacent to the bedrock, resulting in large patches of wonderfully glutinous mud. Our crawling in this mud was at least worthwhile, as we came upon an area of rock that was very rich in fossils. We hauled out nine partial eurypterids (“sea scorpions”), along with other associated bits and pieces. By the end of the day Michael and I looked rather disgusting, encrusted with mud as we were.  We were also disgusted with Dave, because he somehow managed to avoid getting mud on himself!

An Ordovician eurypterid from the Grand Rapids Uplands (specimen I-4036B)

An Ordovician eurypterid from the Grand Rapids Uplands (specimen I-4036B)

Saturday we had planned to do quick stops at several sites, prior to returning to Winnipeg in the afternoon. Of course, by now the weather had improved and we were greeted by a sunny, mild day with patchy cloud. Nevertheless, we were not unhappy that we had finished heavy collecting on the main site, as the blackflies had returned in profusion.

So if paleontologists tell you they are off to do fieldwork, you should not immediately imagine a romantic, exciting “dig”, in a setting reminiscent of that at the start of Jurassic Park. The specimens are often worth the pain, but the pain is often genuine!

Dave and Michael stand by the cluster of eurypterid-bearing slabs

Dave and Michael stand by the cluster of eurypterid-bearing slabs

 

 

New Guidebooks Published

The Manitoba Legislative Building (photo by Jeff Young)

The Manitoba Legislative Building (photo by Jeff Young)

Following on from my recent post about the geology of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, it seems entirely appropriate timing that another piece of architectural geology work has just been published. Last week, a guidebook to the geology of the Manitoba Legislative Building, by Jeff Young, Bill Brisbin, and me, finally appeared in downloadable form. The entire file (20 megabytes) can be found here.

This book was published as part of a series of field trip guides for the Geological Association of Canada – Mineralogical Association of Canada annual meeting, which took place in Winnipeg in May. Jeff Young (University of Manitoba) and I had the pleasure of leading an afternoon tour of the Legislative Building; it is such an interesting and beautiful structure, and it is always a pleasure to see people’s reactions to its geological features. The guidebook is based on research Jeff and I did with Bill Brisbin (also of U of M) almost a decade ago.

In addition to the Legislature guidebook, I also enjoyed assisting with a field trip on the Ordovician to Silurian geology of southern Manitoba. The guidebook for that trip (26 megabytes), by Bob Elias et al., can be downloaded here.

The Rotunda inside the Manitoba Legislative Building features walls of Manitoba Tyndall Stone, and floors of Tennessee marble, Verde Antique marble, and Ordovician black marble.

The Rotunda inside the Manitoba Legislative Building features walls of Manitoba Tyndall Stone, and floors of Tennessee marble, Verde Antique marble, and Ordovician black marble.

 

Geology of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights: Part 1

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Construction site at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, June, 2013 (please click on images to enlarge)

The construction of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg has been the subject of tremendous public interest and media coverage. As opening nears for this institution, our first national museum outside the Ottawa area, I have read discussions of the planned exhibits and galleries, conversations concerning the relationship between the museum and local communities, and assessments of the architecture of the spectacular building. I have not, however, seen anything on a topic that may be of great interest to this page’s visitors: is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights worth looking at for its geological features?

Having received a tour of the interior construction site in April, followed up more recently by careful examination of the building’s exterior, I have to respond to this question with a full-voiced “yes.” The CMHR does not contain as great a variety of building stones as some older buildings in downtown Winnipeg, but some of the materials are of types not readily seen in other structures, and the immense scale of the structure permits a geological experience that may be unparalleled elsewhere in this town.

Outside the museum, stone is now being installed to integrate the building with the surround landscape.

Outside the museum, stone is being installed to integrate the building with the surrounding landscape.

The following descriptions are based largely on my brief observations of a building still very much under construction, along with what I could glean from the web and some information received from helpful staff at CMHR. Since a thorough examination is not possible at this stage, and since surfaces were still being installed when I saw them, it is entirely probable that I have missed or misinterpreted some of the geological materials. I am also, for the moment, ignoring the site geology and materials other than stone. At some point in the future I hope that we can write a detailed consideration of CMHR’s geology, comparable to our work on the Manitoba Legislative Building (a pdf can be found here [note: file size is 20 megabytes]).

On the building's exterior, Tyndall Stone walls appear as a stack of irregular polygons.

On the building’s exterior, Tyndall Stone walls appear as a stack of irregular polygons.

To a Winnipegger walking outside the CMHR, the immense surfaces of Manitoba Tyndall Stone are both familiar and obvious. Since this stone is locally ubiquitous, I will instead begin with the more unusual materials in the museum’s interior. As you enter the building, some of the introductory areas seem dark and low, walled largely with ochre-coloured concrete along with feature walls of other materials. Passing upward into more open spaces, you have your first glance of the extensive ramp system that allows visitors to walk through the many museum areas.

Remarkable ramp geometry

1. Spanish Alabaster

The walking surfaces of the ramps are concrete, but the sides are Spanish alabaster, quarried in Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain. Alabaster is a translucent, lustrous stone, long used by humans because it is beautiful and easy to work with. The CMHR alabaster is cut quite thin, about 2 cm (or 3/4″), and with the natural light it glows magically when backlit.

Translucent alabaster on the side of a ramp
Translucent alabaster on the side of a ramp

Geologically, two major types of material are considered as “alabasters”: gypsum (hydrous sulfate of calcium) and calcite (calcium carbonate). Neither kind of alabaster is resistant to rain and moisture, so both are only suitable for indoor use. The CMHR alabaster is of the gypsum sort; it is quite a soft material, but the crystals are tiny and tightly bound together, permitting both the polish and the translucent quality. Pure alabaster is white, and the beautiful colours and patterns actually come from impurities such as clays.

ramp geometry 5

These views of ramps show the beautiful variation in tone and colour of alabaster.

These views of ramps show the beautiful variation in tone and colour of alabaster

The Aragonese alabaster was quarried from near-horizontal beds in the Ebro Basin of northeastern Spain. It formed during the Oligocene and Miocene epochs (roughly 34 to 5 million years ago). During this interval, the Ebro Basin was endorheic (i.e., it had internal drainage and was not connected to the sea). As a result the water often became very saline (briny), and salts were precipitated out to form bedded chemical rock, most notably the gypsum that makes up this alabaster. The Aragonese alabaster is quarried by Alabaster New Concept.

Manitoba also has considerable gypsum deposits in our Jurassic sedimentary rocks. These can be seen at places such as Gypsumville and Amaranth, but as far as I know there is none of alabaster grade.

________________________________

Part 2 of this geological tour will follow soon, with an explanation of the dark stone that can be seen in the spectacular Garden of Contemplation and other places in the museum’s interior.

Three Days in the Interlake

Tramping through the woods in October

Tramping through the woods in October

Looking through my window at the still-snowy, still-wintry Winnipeg streetscape, I have to remind myself that spring is not far away. Soon the snow will leave and we will again be able to begin one of the most pleasurable of the Museum’s activities: fieldwork. Last year, between various other projects, I worked with Bob Elias (University of Manitoba) and Ed Dobrzanski on gathering information that we could use in a field guidebook for this spring’s Winnipeg GAC-MAC meeting (Geological Association of Canada – Mineralogical Association of Canada).

Most of the sites we planned to include in the guidebook were well known to us, but there was one glaring absence: Bob and I had never seen the type section for the Lower Silurian Fisher Branch Formation, and Ed had visited it just once almost 50 years ago! From the published scientific work we knew where the site should be: all we had to do was to visit and document it. This seemed like a straightforward mission, as we already had maps and a geographic position, but as it turned out we made three trips to the Fisher Branch area before the work was complete.

The first trip, in late May, was after several days of rain. We found the right roads, we located the property on which the site should be located, and we met and received help from the very kind owners of the property. But the roads were continuous mud in places, and we were told that the field track to the site would be impassable that day. We would need to come back later when the weather had been dry for a while.

On the first day out, Ed gathers GPS data from a little patch of bedrock outcrop (some distance from the actual locality), while it appears that Bob is not really enjoying the misty weather.

On the first day out, Ed gathers GPS data from a little patch of bedrock outcrop some distance from the actual locality, while it appears that Bob is not really enjoying the misty weather.

No, the collie did not chase us into the car.  It was extremely friendly, and just wanted us to hang around longer!

No, the collie did not chase us into the car. It was extremely friendly, and just wanted us to hang around longer!

Bob demonstrates "cow-whispering" skills of which Ed and I had been previously unaware. Bob says later that they were more attentive than his human classes often are, though their attention did not seem to last very long.

Bob demonstrates “cow-whispering” skills of which Ed and I had been previously unaware. Bob says later that they were more attentive than his human classes often are, though their attention did not seem to last very long.

This is what the car looked like after we had finished many miles on muddy roads. Ed and Bob are inside, but you can't really see them.

This is what the car looked like after we had finished many miles on muddy roads. Ed and Bob are inside, but you can’t really see them through the nearly-opaque windows. That’s the Lundar Goose in the background.

The second day was one of those hot, dry, breezy July days. The air motion was sufficient to cool us and to keep mosquitoes and flies from being too much of a nuisance. We drove through fields almost to the site, without even getting dirt on the car! Tucking trousers into socks to keep the nasty wood ticks from climbing our legs (this may look goofy, but it works), we pushed through the dense brush. We rapidly discovered four nice scarp sections in the trees. The farthest of these looked promising because it showed the best exposure of the Stonewall Formation, which lies under the Fisher Branch. This site, however, turned out to be already occupied: a bear grunted and huffed from the underlying crevice when we got too close!

We quickly decided to measure the next section along instead. Data and rock samples were easily gathered, but we could not get decent photos of the rocks because the view was blocked by foliage whichever way we turned. We would need to return in the autumn, after the trees had lost their leaves.

Bob and I unload gear at the edge of the field. (photo by Ed Dobrzanski)

In the perfect July weather, Bob (right) and I unload gear at the edge of the field. (photo by Ed Dobrzanski)

Success! Bob and Ed on top of a bedrock scarp.

Success! Bob and Ed on top of a bedrock scarp.

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A wood tick that, thanks to the "pants tucked into socks" approach was discovered on the outside of my clothing.

A wood tick that, thanks to the “pants tucked into socks” approach, was discovered on the outside of my clothing.

By mid October the leaves were all gone and the weather was still lovely; ideal for our final “day out” near Fisher Branch. We stopped at Stony Mountain and Stonewall to check out conditions at those localities, then drove north to Fisher Branch by lunchtime. In the field beside the sites we were met by a large herd of cows (perhaps the Interlake should be advertised as “Land of Cows”?), some of which became very interested in our Jeep. The bear was apparently no longer in residence at the farthest scarp, so we were free to examine the rock, take photographs, and gather a set of isotope samples. Later in the afternoon, we tramped up over the hill above the scarp, just to make sure that there was no further unexamined outcrop.

It was a perfect autumn day; the last perfect field day of the year, as it turned out. Our drive to Grand Rapids under rather less pleasant conditions was to follow just a couple of days later.

It is good that Jeeps are designed to take a licking.

It is good that Jeeps are designed to take a licking.

The body of the tape measure rests at the boundary between the Stonewall Formation (below) and Fisher Branch Formation (above). That boundary is now considered to also represent the Ordovician-Silurian Boundary, so this site is very significant as the only place this boundary can be observed in southern Manitoba.

The body of the tape measure rests at the boundary between the Stonewall Formation (below) and Fisher Branch Formation (above). That boundary is now considered to also represent the Ordovician-Silurian Boundary, so this site is very significant as the only place this systemic boundary can be observed in southern Manitoba. Length of the tape measure is 1 metre.

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The farm includes several wonderful buildings from the original Ukrainian settlement of this area, about a century ago.

The farm includes several wonderful buildings from the original Ukrainian settlement of this area, about a century ago.

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The Old Museum Lives On

 

Some of the exhibits at the old Manitoba Museum

Some of the exhibits at the old Manitoba Museum

Winnipeg has a long and complicated history of museums featuring natural history collections. Our current museum was a centennial project, opened in 1970, but we are very fortunate that we possess vestiges of those earlier museums, such as minerals from the Carnegie Library collection and mounted animals from some of the early taxidermists. The most visible and best-documented of these “inheritances” are pieces that were exhibited in the old Manitoba Museum, which occupied part of the Winnipeg Civic Auditorium from 1932 until about 1970.

We have a good record of specimens from the old museum because they were numbered, with the numbers listed in a book. We also have good knowledge of how some of these pieces were exhibited thanks to a set of photographs that are digitally filed at the Museum. I am not certain of the dates of these photos; some seem to be from the 1930s when specific exhibits were being installed, while others are from the 1940s or 1950s and show finished exhibits.

The old museum was not large, but it was clearly a pleasant place to spend an afternoon examining cabinets of archaeological artefacts, First Nations clothing, stuffed birds, and fossils. It was very much a “cabinet of curiosities” of the old school, and a good one. Sometimes when I look at these photos I feel a bit sad, and wish that we had been able to keep that old museum as well as building this newer one.

In a way, though, we have kept some of that old Museum, in the specimens and artefacts we inherited. It is intriguing that, even after all this time, many of those fossils are still the best examples we have for particular groups, and several of them are in the Earth History Gallery or have been selected for temporary exhibits. The most obvious of these is our mounted Cretaceous plesiosaur, Trinacromerum kirki.

The plesiosaur as exhibited in the old Manitoba Museum after 1937

The plesiosaur as exhibited in the old Manitoba Museum after 1937

The plesiosaur on exhibit last week

The plesiosaur on exhibit last week

The plesiosaur is now exhibited near a mosasaur skull, with beautiful replicas of Nyctosaurus above.

The plesiosaur is now exhibited near a mosasaur skull, with beautiful reconstructions of the pterosaur Nyctosaurus suspended above.

This specimen, collected from the Manitoba Escarpment near Treherne in 1932, was a highlight of the old museum. After several re-mountings (including a more accurate replica skull), it remains a focus of our Earth History Gallery today. Skeletons of large extinct creatures never go out of style, but what other fossils can also be traced to the old museum?

The exhibits there featured some beautiful specimens of cephalopods (relatives of octopus and squid) of Ordovician age (about 450 million years old). Ordovician cephalopods are familiar to many Winnipeggers because cut sections through these fossils are often seen in Tyndall Stone walls. Although the cut fossils are common, complete cephalopods are very rarely found nowadays, because the stone is cut directly out of the quarry walls.

endocerid old museum

Ordovician cephalopods in the old museum. We have all of these specimens in our collection; look at the next photo for another image of the largest one!

In the early years of quarrying, however, the work was done by hand. Three-dimensional fossils were extracted more commonly, and as a result many of our best large Tyndall Stone fossils come from the old collections. This is particularly striking in the Ancient Seas exhibit, where the finest endocerid cephalopod is one that was on exhibit in the old museum, and where some of the other fossils also came from old collections.

The endocerid from the old museum is one of the highlighted specimens in the Ancient Seas exhibit.

The endocerid from the old museum is one of the highlighted specimens in the Ancient Seas exhibit.

Other specimens from the old museum make appearances almost every time we do a temporary exhibit in the Discovery Room, featuring  geology or paleontology pieces. Right at the moment, the cephalopod case in our Marvellous Molluscs exhibit includes a pair of fossils from that source. Looking at the old photographs, I was fascinated to discover that two “old friends” that shared a case in the old museum are right beside one another in this current exhibit!

There is something very pleasing about seeing them together like this, 70 years or so after that previous photo. In this way at least, the old museum lives on.

A group of Tyndall Stone cephalopods in the old museum. Note the specimens at top right and bottom left.

A group of Tyndall Stone cephalopods in the old museum. Note the specimens at top right and bottom left.

Part of the cephalopod exhibit in Marvellous Molluscs, with the two old museum specimens in front

Part of the cephalopod exhibit in Marvellous Molluscs, with the two old museum specimens in front

 

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Showing You the Door

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, one of my main intentions was to share the various items and phenomena that are within close reach of my desk, here on the 4th floor of the Museum tower. With that in mind, and since at lunchtime on New Year’s Eve we have reached a point in the year where serious and scholarly content should not be expected, I have decided to provide you with an annotated view of my office door.

In general, this curator’s door is far from curated, in the sense of having organized content. Rather, it is an odd mixture of items that I have randomly decided to exhibit, pieces that other people decided should be placed on my door, and things that seem to have flown in and stuck there all by themselves. With that in mind, the following is an annotated pictorial guide to items that can be seen on my door right now.

1, 2. When I started work at the Museum almost 20 years ago, the “Curator of Geology” plate was already on the door. As I was a part-time term employee for the first few years, I didn’t think that I should waste the Museum’s funds by requesting a personal nameplate. After a year or so, however, we made a “temporary” plate by laminating a laser-printed output to cardstock. I am, of course, still using the temporary plate, as it works just fine and I still like to avoid wasting money!

3, 4. For some unknown reason, the door suggests that my office is both Room 417 and Room 418. The 417 is, however, struck through with pen, indicating that 418 may be the accurate number.

5. When I started here, the Museum was called the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, and the name and logo had been very nicely laminated to my door. I really like our new name, but I also like being surrounded by reminders of history.

6-8. My door seems to have acquired a variety of warning signs, perhaps in the hope that potential visitors will leave me to peacefully contemplate the riddles of the universe (note: these haven’t worked so far!). Actually, numbers 6 and 8 are copies of signs seen near Churchill, and are reminders of northern fieldwork. Number 7 is a joke sign produced by former Curator of Zoology Gavin Hanke, when he was making a “bear warning” sign for the Parklands/Mixed Woods Gallery. Some thoughtful person has, with a pencil, modified “Irate Curator” to “Pirate Curator”, which brings to mind all sorts of interesting images.  Arrr.

9. This sticker promotes the “International Year of the Reef 1997″. Sadly, evidence would suggest that this was one of the less successful International Years.

10. The definition of forthwith came from the brain of my friend Dave Rudkin. With this in mind, I am always happy to state that I will produce a document “forthwith.”

11. This lovely pen-and-ink sketch of the Ordovician branching coral Pragnellia arborescens is by Museum artist and preparator Debbie Thompson. It depicts the holotype of this species, specimen I-206.

12. A photo of the head (cranidium) of a Silurian trilobite from the Gaspé Peninsula of Québec is there to remind me of two things. First, it is an image I took 30 years ago using what is now ancient technology (a large-format film camera), and its tone and beauty demonstrate that new methods are not always the best methods. Second, since it is from a research project that I never completed, it is a reminder not to keep taking on new projects that I will not be able to finish!

13. The obligatory dinosaur cartoon.

14.  This is a Velociraptor-free workplace, and there have been no incidents since this sign was put up almost a month ago.

15. I produced this version of the Canadian flag for my other blog a couple of years ago, after reading Michael Flanders’ pronouncement from the 1960s that our flag looked like a dinosaur footprint.

16. This was a nice poster of a pyrite crystal, but it is sadly becoming greenish and tattered, and I really should replace it!

 

 

 

Marvellous Molluscs

(photo by Hans Thater)

This has been a year rich in exhibit work, and we are finishing off with a bit of a bang. About a week ago we finished installation of our latest Discovery Room exhibit, a collaboration between Zoology and Paleontology entitled The World is Their Oyster: Marvellous Molluscs. As with the other D-Room exhibits we have produced (such as Jaws and Teeth and Colours in Nature), this was a collaborative effort. It was a pleasure to again work with Randy Mooi on selecting suitable specimens and preparing copy, and to collaborate with our superb collections and exhibit staff to produce the finished exhibit.

Gastropods (snails and their relatives) are the most diverse molluscs, so it seemed appropriate that the gastropod case should hold the greatest variety of specimens!

The idea for this exhibit was quite straightforward: to select suitable specimens from our permanent collection, which would depict the wonderful diversity and variability of molluscs. We also wished to give visitors a bit of information about the long fossil record of molluscs, their evolution, and a few “case studies” of particular molluscs or features.

This seemed like a simple sort of thing to do, but of course the view on the ground is never the same as that from 30,000 feet. Most of our issues were associated with the sheer number of mollusc specimens housed in our collections. We knew that there would be many excellent examples to choose from, but we did not appreciate quite how difficult this would be. There were so many to consider that, whenever we chose one beautiful snail for the gastropod case, it seemed there were at least 10 other good ones that could not be included.

Specimens in the mollusc diversity case

The other issue was that molluscs are just so darned interesting, weird, and complicated in their life stories, dietary habits, and evolution. We kept discovering unusual things that we had not been aware of (or at least, I did; I suspect that Randy already knew some of these things). As a result, more and more new ideas came forward, and it was very hard to decide what we could include in the modest panel copy that accompanies the specimens. We were grateful that Stephanie Whitehouse, the designer, was so clear in telling us exactly how much space we had!

Northern shortfin squid (Ilex illecebrosus), Atlantic Ocean

As issues and problems go, these were obviously good ones to have. And as these photos show, we were able to share a great variety of beautiful and appealing mollusc material. You will just have to imagine what the cases might have looked like if we had been able to include every single specimen we considered worthy of exhibit!

The cephalopod case

A variety of abalones

One of our primary objectives was to exhibit modern and fossil examples of closely related creatures. This photo shows a fossil lightning whelk (Busycon sp.) from Pliocene deposits in South Carolina (about 2.6-5 million years old) beside one of its modern relatives.

The view through a magnifier shows the fossil Conocardium from Ordovician rocks at Garson, Manitoba (a member of the extinct class Rostroconchia; about 450 million years old).

King’s crown conch (Melongena corona), Atlantic Ocean

This fossil scallop Chesapecten jeffersonius, from Pliocene deposits in Virginia (about 5 million years old) is pierced by borings, and has been encrusted by corals and barnacles.

An array of beautiful cone shells (Conus species)

Baetic dwarf olive (Olivella baetica), Pacific Ocean

 

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