In search of live plesiosaurs in Patagonia

Once in Argentina with the CMFPE, Elmer S. Riggs was required to write and submit a fossil collecting permit application to the Minister of Justice and Public Instruction. He then waited more-or-less patiently as the application made its way slowly through bureaucratic channels over the next two weeks. Meanwhile, with his application pending and nothing more pressing to attend to, he enjoyed the sights of Buenos Aires and La Plata, including several “hotly-contested” horse races in Palermo, a “splendid boulevard,” parks “rivaling anything we had seen in the U.S.,” and “splendid monuments.” During this long interval he had “plenty of time to see the city and to become acquainted with the Museums.” Years later Riggs wrote that “there are many attractive places in the parks and plazas of the Argentine capital. The abundance of palms,” and other tropical vegetation added “beauty and luxuriance” to the landscape.

Clemente Onelli, zoologist and Patagonia explorer
Clemente Onelli, zoologist and Patagonia explorer

At some point Riggs met with zoologist and Patagonian explorer Clemente Onelli. Their meeting probably took place during a visit to the local zoo, where Onelli was director. Onelli shared a fantastic story with his Chicago visitor. In January 1922, he had received a letter from Martin Sheffield, a native Texan and adventurer then living in Patagonia. Sheffield claimed to have sighted a strange animal swimming in a lake near the remote town of Esquel: “I saw in the middle of the lake an animal with a huge neck like that of a swan, and the movement in the water made me suppose the beast to have a body like that of a crocodile,” he wrote. This, coupled with other, similar reports, brought plesiosaurs to the zoo director’s mind. Intrigued by the possibility of finding a living animal alleged to be extinct in the wilds of Patagonia, Onelli organized a well-publicized expedition aimed at capturing the beast. Armed with elephant guns and dynamite, the expedition set out from Buenos Aires on 23 March 1922. They reached the lake near Esquel, but finding no sign of the plesiosaur, they turned back empty-handed with the onset of winter.

Clemente (center) and his expeditionaries.
Clemente (center) and his expeditionaries. Source: Patagonian Monsters.

An Associated Press story then circulated widely in North American newspapers linking Riggs to the hunt for Patagonian plesiosaurs. According to an article in the Chicago Post, for example, Riggs listened “with interest” to Onelli’s account of the unsuccessful search for the mysterious monster. Riggs could not be tempted away from his fossil expedition, though he toyed with the reporter gamely: “‘If I meet that Plesiosaurus,’ said Prof. Riggs to Prof. Onelli, ‘I’ll put a lariat around his neck and lead him direct to the Buenos Aires zoo.’” Riggs’ American Museum colleague William Diller Matthew read a similar article in New York. “I noted in the newspaper despatches an interview with Dr. Riggs,” Matthew wrote in a letter to George F. Sternberg, “in which he promised to lead the live plesiosaurus home by the tail, evidently refusing to take that story as seriously as the reporter wanted him to.”

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Patagonia has given rise to more than its fair share of fantastic stories of monsters, giant men and lost cities. (For more information on this, see Patagonian Monsters.)  And though Riggs never was distracted by the search for a live plesiosaur, he went on at least one wild goose chase with another Patagonian adventurer named Gerhard Wolf. More on the mysterious Dr. Wolf will appear in a future post.

The plesiosaur tango was one of several cultural byproducts of the search for plesiosaurs in Patagonia
The plesiosaur tango was one of several cultural byproducts of the search for plesiosaurs in Patagonia
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Utah Calling

Only a few short weeks until the 2013 Utah field season for the Paleontology Research Lab.  This year, we are taking a group of students from North Carolina State University on a field course in vertebrate paleontology field methods.  It is always exciting to get back out to a field site and start excavating some of the exciting surface finds from the previous year.  We are hoping to excavate the remainder of a turtle that was partially discovered broken up on the surface last year, as well as some theropod material from a nearby but separate locality.

photo by Mike Eklund of Natural History Studios
photo by Mike Eklund of Natural History Studios

This year, we hope to have better access to cell tower signals for more opportunities to connect with people back home, at the museum and on the blog.  We will be attempting to keep an updated blog while in the field so everyone can have a better idea of what exciting things are being found.

Cretaceous Cold Case #2, Part 1: It’s a Trap?

Cretaceous Cold Case #2, Part 1: It’s a Trap?

READ IT HERE: Cretaceous Cold Case #2, Part 1: It’s a Trap?

taken from the blog:

This is part one of the second post in a series called “Cretaceous Cold Cases” in which the science of taphonomy, or prehistoric forensics, is explained  using fascinating cases from the files of Terry “Bucky” Gates, a research scientist with a joint appointment at NC State and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Part 2 can be found here.

Follow Bucky’s new blog series: Cretaceous Cold Case

Follow Bucky’s new blog series: Cretaceous Cold Case

Cretaceous Cold Cases #1: A Case With Legs

taken from the blog:

“This is the first post in a series called “Cretaceous Cold Cases” in which the science of taphonomy, or prehistoric forensics, is explained and exemplified by fascinating cases from the files of Terry “Bucky” Gates, a research scientist with a joint appointment at NC State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.”

Gigantic T. rex! at Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium

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Me with Matt Brown (Chief Preparator, UT Austin) and Mike Eklund (Vehement Pioneer of Methods & Materials in Paleontology) at the base of the world’s largest T. rex in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada

FPCS2013The 6th annual FPCS in Drumheller Canada was a wonderful trip to the Royal Tyrrell Museum and Dinosaur Provincial Park.  Had a chance to meet and socialize with colleagues from many institutions.  This conference has doubled in size in the six years since the first meeting in 2008 at Petrified Forest National Park.

The mornings were filled with talks on how collections storage and preparation techniques have changed over the history of paleontology.  As collections grow and age proper care is required to maintain what has already been collected, as well as how to care for newly acquired specimens.  In the afternoons we were able to tour the museum, collections, laboratories and offices as well as participate in hands on workshops relating to methods on preparation and collections.  This is the best part for me.  I love to see how other institutions operate, talk to others about problems  and often get great tips on how to improve methods in the care of specimens in my own institution.

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Storage for unopened and unprepared field jackets. Each field jacket is marked with specimen information, collection data, as well as the weight of the jacket. Some of the field jackets are over 1000lbs!
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The storage space where finished specimens live. These are all cataloged and documented. The “type” specimens are locked in a separate room. The Tyrrell has many large specimens stored on open shelving like this, but also a lot of smaller things in cabinets with drawers.

The Collections at the Tyrrell are filled with many specimens that still require preparation, and many that have been beautifully prepared in their enormous lab space.  The space is equipped with rolling tables and mobile dust collection units.  So much of what they work on in here is large blocks filled with dinosaur bones or marine reptiles that open, modular space is essential.  A 3 ton hoist is located at one end of the lab for moving the large jacket from pallets onto the worktables.  There is another, smaller lab space equipped with microscope workstations for more detailed, finer preparation.

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This window looks out into the exhibit space. The preparator’s call their lab the “fish bowl”. A common nick-name for public labs. Always on display, like fish in a bowl…
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Another view of the main preparation lab. A lot of big dinosaurs and marine reptiles get worked on in here. They need lots of space, and can have several work stations with large specimens going at a time.