Auld Lang Syne: Riggs arrives at Rio Gallegos

Elmer S. Riggs riding a donkey in Argentina.
Elmer S. Riggs riding a donkey in Argentina.

Ninety years ago today, Elmer S. Riggs and his small party, including George F. Sternberg and John B. Abbott, arrived at Rio Gallegos, Argentina to begin a long fossil hunting expedition in southern Patagonia. On that day, Riggs wrote one of his longest and most memorable journal entries, most of which is excerpted below:

Riggs and his party traveled on the S.S. Asturiano.
Riggs and his party traveled on the S.S. Asturiano.

Rio Gallegos.
Sunday Dec 31. 1922.

Called by the steward at 6:40 to find that the ship had anchored in the mouth of the river. Great scurrying about and the steward called for our baggage before I was dressed. Gave him the trunks then the hurry was all over and we were told that there was time for breakfast. Packed suit case and bag and then went down for coffee 7 o’clock.

At 8:30 a ships lighter was anchored alongside and hand baggage passed down. Then men were admitted to the gangway. Passengers all lined up along the rail watching the lighter bobbing upon the waves and bumping ship and ladder. Two longshoremen stood at bottom in the lighter and when close enough, pulled and lifted passengers from the ladder to it. As I entered the smaller boat was unable to stand up because of the motion. Some passengers were lying close under the forward decking already seasick while the spray from every wave broke over us. Men, women, and children were pulled and lifted aboard, infants were carried by the sailors. Passengers dropped down on luggage and boxes anywhere.

Then the ships steam launch which had been lying off during the disembarking, came alongside and picked up the lighters hawser and took us in tow not alongside as had been done in quiet waters but with a long tow-line. After twenty minutes of buffeting and liberal of sprinkling from salt water, we ran on the beach a mile from the ship. A miscellaneous crowd lined the shore. As I approached a stack of trunks, boxes, chests, and furniture a tall young man approached and asked, “Is this Mr. Riggs[?]” Receiving my answer in the affirmative he offered a hearty handshake and replied that he was Mr. Coleman of Chicago. Then in quite as genuine a manner he asked “What can I do for you?”

This hearty and friendly greeting did much toward relieving a feeling of strangeness at being dumped ashore in a strange country amid the babble of strange tongues.

Mr. Coleman showed Riggs and his party to the Hotel Argentino in Rio Gallegos.
Mr. Coleman showed Riggs and his party to the Hotel Argentino in Rio Gallegos.

Riggs and his party stayed for several days the Hotel Argentino. Here they acclimated to their new surroundings, which – though strange at first – became more and more familiar with each passing day. In town they shopped, packed and readied their outfit for fieldwork. By the end of the first week of January they were camped on the other side of the river, searching for Santa Cruz fossil mammals along the riverbank and in the sea cliffs north of town.

The cover of Riggs' personal journal.
The cover of Riggs’ personal journal.

Did Plants Make Feathered Dinosaurs Dumb?

Short answer, no.

Want to know more… by all means read on.

Today, colleagues from the University of Bristol, National University of Mongolia, Ohio University and I took aim at the doctor/patient confidentiality pact by publishing some very personal information on a research subject of ours.  Fortunately, I don’t think this particular patient is going to get their feathers ruffled about it.  Turns out, paleontologists are smarter than we often get credit for.  In fact, we’ve got this whole messy doctor/patient thing figured out… just work on patients that are already dead… in this case, for over 90 million years.

copyright Mark Anderson www.andertoons.com
copyright Mark Anderson http://www.andertoons.com

One fortuitous day, we got the chance to do just that.  The only good skull of a rare and whacky group of theropod dinosaurs known as Therizinosauria made the trek from Mongolia to the UK on holiday.  While there, UK paleontologists realized that the skull of the therizinosaur Erlikosaurus was REALLY, REALLY, REALLY, overdue for its check-up.  So they took Erlikosaurus’s head to a CT scanning facility for its 90 million year annual physical.

The fossilized skull of Erlikosaurus andrewsi from the Cretaceous of Mongolia
The fossilized skull of Erlikosaurus andrewsi from the Cretaceous of Mongolia

Why Erlikosaurus?  Well, for starters, therizinosaurs are downright weird animals, which makes them really interesting to weird people (erg.. uh.. cough.. I mean “scientists”). Although they are theropods and therefore cousins of bloodthirsty predators like Velociraptor, therizinosaurs were clearly not taking a bite out of anyone.  Sometimes it is hard to envision an advanced therizinosaur like Erlikosaurus as doing anything at all, other than finding a nice soft spot in the Cretaceous landscape to pop a squat and eat all day long.  A quick run down of the therizinosaur anatomy makes this blaringly evident.  These guys had tiny heads, tightly packed minuscule teeth, long necks, stocky legs with fat feet, hand claws up to four feet long, and giant bloated bellies. They also reached enormous body sizes up to 13,000 lbs. When I was in grad school I used to get this point across by comparing therizinosaurs to a cross between a gorilla, an ostrich, and Edward Scissorhands.  If you ask me, the analogy is still apropros.

Luis Rey's vision of what an advanced therizinosaur looked like in the flesh.
Luis Rey’s vision of what an advanced therizinosaur looked like in the flesh.
How to build a therizinosaur 101.
How to build a therizinosaur 101.


The question is… did the loss of predatory behavior coincide with a loss of smarts and a loss of sensory capabilities in therizinosaurs?  No one knew. By CT scanning the skull, we were able to reconstruct soft tissue of the brain and inner ear of Erlikosaurus and tackle this intriguing question.  The result?  Despite its rather slow appearance, Erlikosaurus was not a dumb as a box of rocks.  Although, these kind of estimates are admittedly crude, it seems as if Erlikosaurus was just a bit shy on the intelligence scale when compared to early birds, but likely a bit ahead of the great hunter T. rex.  Pair this with the fact that Erlikosaurus had above average hearing capabilities for an animal its size and a higher than predicted sense of smell, and suddenly therizinosaurs don’t seems as dimwitted as…. well, as they look.

Scans did reveal that one Erlikosaurus sense could’ve benefited from some improvement–its vision, which probably wasn’t the best.  Whatever these guys were eating, they were likely munching in the pure light of day.

Reconstructed soft tissues in the head of Erlikosaurus: brain (blue), cranial nerves (yellow), and inner ear (pink).
Reconstructed soft tissues in the head of Erlikosaurus: brain (blue), cranial nerves (yellow), and inner ear (pink).

The implications are interesting. Despite leaning toward vegetarianism, therizinosaurs seem to have kept the keen sensory toolkit they inherited from their predatory ancestors.  All of which means that the brainpower and good senses of therizinosaurs had more to do with their place on the family tree as close cousins to birds than their dietary preference.  Its also good to know that, should you ever encounter Erlikosaurus as a result of, say a time machine fluke, it could hear your terrified whimpers but would be kind enough not to eat you.  (Just don’t sneak up on it at night or you could lose an eye).

Couldn’t say the same about T. rex.

The paper “The Endocranial Anatomy of Therizinosauria and its Implications for Sensory and Cognitive Function” by S. Lautenschlager, E. Rayfield, P. Altangerel, L. Zanno, and L. Witmer, is freely available to the public via the journal PLoS ONEhttp://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0052289

Dressed up for a shakedown

In the Field Museum Archives there is a brittle and cracked album full of newspaper clippings yellow with age. During a recent research trip to Chicago, I had the opportunity to thumb through this album – very carefully! – while searching for information about the Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expeditions of the 1920s. I found a few gems, including the photograph posted below, which shows Elmer S. Riggs, George Bedford, John B. Abbott, C. Harold Riggs and Anthony Dombrosky smartly dressed and standing on a railroad platform waiting to board a train for western Canada.

E. S. Riggs, G. Bedford, J. B. Abbott, C. H. Riggs and A. Dombrosky waiting on a train
(L to R) E. S. Riggs, G. Bedford, J. B. Abbott, C. H. Riggs and A. Dombrosky waiting on a train

Before they went fossil hunting in southern Patagonia, E. S. Riggs and J. B. Abbott were involved in a shakedown expedition to the Red Deer River region of Alberta, where they tested themselves and their new equipment by collecting late Cretaceous dinosaurs. The Alberta expedition, which lasted from June through early September, 1922 and netted several quality specimens of duck-billed dinosaurs, one juvenile tyrannosaur and an assortment of plants and other fossils, is the subject of an article expected to appear in 2013 in the journal Earth Sciences History. The article is tentatively titled: “Red Deer River shakedown.”

The men in the photograph, looking more like Chicago mobsters than paleontologists, are dressed to the nines in fashionable suits, hats and shoes. When seeing the picture for the first time, a colleague quipped: “Is that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre?” No, though they certainly look the part. So why is this group of scientists setting out on a fossil-hunting adventure so well dressed? Because they lived in an era when the standards for dress for traveling men (and women) were much, much higher. I sometimes find myself wishing I lived in another time, yet I certainly do not have the wardrobe nor the sense of style appropriate for the 1920s.

The photograph was originally published in the Pittsburgh Chronical Telegraph on 8 June 1922. It is credited to P. & A. Photos, which was a company co-owned by the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News that went belly-up in 1930. So far, a search for the original negative has turned up nothing. If there is a reader out there who would like to do some sleuthing for historic photographs, I would be very grateful to get my hands on this one. Let me know what you find.

I also include (below) a photograph taken during a break from fieldwork, lest readers think that Riggs & Co. dressed like this while collecting fossils.

GEO13page016
(L to R) G. F. Sternberg, A. Dombrosky, C. H. Riggs, G. Bedford and J. B. Abbott posing in front of their mess tent. Field Museum number CSGEO45139.

 

What does the “random journal entry” read?

A number of curious readers have asked the obvious question: what does the “random journal entry” shown in my previous post read?

There are actually four entries on the two pages depicted, including 8-9 April 1923 and 5-6 April 1924. The entries for 8-9 April 1923 are the longest and most interesting. The entry for 8 April reads: “A very bad gale last night and today till evening and quite cold[.] went out on tide flat to get a Nesodon skull and lower jaws but tide did not go out far enough to uncover it[.] wind was so strong could not walk against it[.] in Afternoon wrapped specimens.” The next entry reads: “Very rainy until noon and cloudy till about 3 P.M. Prospected tide flat and did some wrapping specimens.”

John B. Abbott working at the Field Museum soon after the expedition returned home.
John B. Abbott working at the Field Museum soon after the expedition returned home.

This is no tall tale. Abbott was then encamped near the Rio Coyle, on the southeastern coast of Patagonia, and working in the mid-Miocene Santa Cruz beds. Anyone who has worked in this windy place will recognize the difficulties Abbott regales! Elmer S. Riggs, leader of the expedition, describes this weather vividly in an entry in his own journal with no date. He writes: “So strong…was wind pressure that men could not stand against it on the beach. Repeatedly we were dashed against rocks, caps and glasses blown away. Rocks were loosened from the cliffs and endangered our heads in the fall.”

Abbott and Riggs were working on the tide flat near these cliffs.
Abbott and Riggs were working on the tide flat near these cliffs.

Nesodon, now extinct, was a large-bodied notoungulate mammal endemic to South America. It was one of the more common Santa Cruz animals.