Saturday, October 29, 2011

Dinosaur Adventure, part 5. A Race against Time.

Mike O’Brien is a man driven to accomplish as much as possible as well as possible as quickly as possible. For good reason: As I explained previously, the fossil footprints are eroding away. And not just gradually; when the river floods, whole chunks of limestone are broken up into little chunks. There is a drought going on in Texas. The Paluxy River has pools of water but no flowing water. Right now is the time when most of the dinosaur trackways are exposed. Right now is the time to make casts, photograph, and map the footprints. The water has not been this low since 1988. Glen Kuban and I also wanted to accomplish as much as possible, but we cannot resist dropping our work (literally, in Glen’s case; the broom thunks to the ground as he begins talking) to explain the trackways to tourists who walk along the trails or in the riverbed.

But first it was necessary to remove the sediments that had accumulated over the tracks. On the east side of Dinosaur Valley State Park, where Denio Creek enters the Paluxy River, there is a site that needed to be cleaned off before casts, photos, and maps can be made. Mike borrowed a water pump from the park staff, with which he sucked water from a pool into a hose with a nozzle. He used the powerful jet from the nozzle to scour away sediments (see photo). Glen and I pushed brooms around to scoot the water and any remaining rocks and sediments back into the pool. We worked for about two hours, at the end of which time the dinosaur footprints began to just look like holes in rocks. How quickly fascination can turn to fatigue. But Glen and I stopped occasionally to marvel at some of the hundreds of footprints that had been hidden for years. Glen remembered them from 1988, when they were last exposed.

But Mike just kept spraying. He looked like a World War Two hero in a trance with a machine gun. He reminded me of Audie Murphy in the 1955 movie To Hell and Back. He also reminded me of a Gila monster, which is a poisonous lizard that, once he bites (according to legend) he doesn’t let go until sundown. (I mean this in a nice way.) The sun was getting low in the sky.

Unfortunately, I had to leave, but the next morning, Mike and Glen would be back in the riverbed photographing and making casts of the tracks. Their work, for which they are not being paid, is essential: they are preserving a record of some of the most important dinosaur tracks in the world.

Don't miss the YouTube videos of the Paluxy River site!

Also, tonight (October 29) is when Jupiter is in opposition to the Earth, which means it is as close as it will be this year; if you have a telescope, go take a look at it, and see the moons, which are in very different positions every night. This is what Galileo saw that made him question the world-view that almost everyone else had at that time!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dinosaur Adventure part 4. A Creationist Misadventure

I usually post once a week but I want to fit five "dinosaur adventures" into October.

While Glen Kuban, Mike O’Brien, Brian Miles, and I worked on the dinosaur footprints in the bed of the Paluxy River on September 24, we answered many questions from park visitors about the footrpints. Nearly everyone had come with an attitude of fascination about the footprints and a desire to learn about them.

Then along came a creationist couple, apparent followers of Carl Baugh, the weird preacher about whom I wrote previously. They started talking to Glen, since it was clear from the work that he was doing that he was no mere tourist. (What follows is based upon a few observations I made; I was helping Mike most of the time.) This couple made a series of strange statements (even by creationist standards). Glen, who has been clocked at three hundred words per minute, was flooding them with information to demonstrate why they were wrong, both scientifically and theologically. I wanted to tell Glen that no amount of information would change their minds, and he might as well come back and continue working with us. But Glen’s circuit had been closed.

The first strange statement was that the woman said one of the footprints in the riverbed had fit her foot perfectly, and that therefore it had to be a human footprint. This is Carl Baugh’s gospel: humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time and left their footprints in the mud that is now the Paluxy River bed. Glen gave her a few hundred words of rebuttal. What I would have said is, “Listen, lady, human feet come in lots of different sizes. If that footprint fit your foot exactly, then it must have been your footprint. These deposits are 110 million years old. Golly, lady, you don’t look a day over 50 million.”

Then the woman said that the dinosaurs could not have existed before the Fall of Adam, because they would have died before the Fall, and the Bible says there was no death before the Fall, and that Jesus’ sacrifice would have meant nothing at all if any of these dinosaurs had died before Adam. Glen gave her a few hundred words of rebuttal. What I would have said is, “Listen, lady, it’s news to me that Jesus came to Earth to save dinosaurs. Do they have souls? Can you find this in the Bible?”

The woman then said that Glen had been brainwashed throughout his entire life by evolution. Glen explained, in no more than three hundred words, that he used to believe the same thing she did—he had been a creationist who believed that there were human footprints mixed in with the dinosaur prints. He had changed his mind about creationism because he came here in 1980—and has been coming ever since—to actually study the footprints.

The woman then asked if Glen was a Christian. Glen said yes. The woman disagreed with him. (Why did she ask him, then?)

The woman’s husband finally felt he had to intervene. He told Glen something like this (I here take some literary license): “My wife politely explained to you that unless there are human footprints in with the dinosaur footprints in this riverbed, then the entire Bible is wrong, all of Christianity is a lie, and Jesus should never have bothered to come to Earth. My wife here politely told you that she, not you, has the prerogative of determining whether or not you believe in Jesus. My wife POLITELY told you that if you disagree with a single word that she says, that you will burn in hell forever. So why are you talking so fast, which sounds to me like you are upset?” Glen gave him a few hundred words of rebuttal. I would have said, “Well, it appears that when your wife reads the Bible, her brain is incapable of making any errors. She must be personally inerrant. Maybe we should all worship her.” (Besides, just because Glen talks fast does not mean he is upset. Oh, did I say that already?)

Second thought, maybe it’s fortunate that I was not the one talking to the woman.

As I recall, the conversation ended when Mike called Glen over to help. We had a lot of work to do and not many hours of daylight remaining, facts that Mike was continually aware of. We were already dismantling the photographic apparatus so that we could move to another site.

Actually, it turns out Glen was a little upset, not at the couple’s creationist beliefs, but at their arrogance: they assumed that they knew everything about the Bible and about science, without having seriously studied either one. Glen had asked the woman some questions about Biblical passages, which she ignored.

Interestingly, the person who should have been talking to the creationist couple was Brian. He did not go into detail, but I gather that he is a conservative Baptist. His church had hosted Carl Baugh one time, something that Brian considered a big mistake. Brian, as a petroleum geologist, knows perfectly well that the fossils have a millions-of-years evolutionary order. You can use the fossils to determine the relative ages of rock layers and this knowledge can help you find oil and gas. But the woman would probably have told him that he, also, was not a Christian.

It was time for us to go to another track site. Mike hoisted his T-pole onto his shoulder and said, “Well, I will just bear my cross,” as he walked back along the Via Dolorosa of dinosaur tracks toward his van. To be continued.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dinosaur Adventures part 3. Scientists at Work

Glen Kuban is not the only person who is in a rush to study the dinosaur footprints in the bed of the Paluxy River (Dinosaur Valley State Park, Texas) before they erode away. Glen is hard at work mapping the exact locations of, and making casts of, the footprints. He has done this for a long time, and Glen’s casts and maps from earlier decades are all that remain of some of the footprints. Before making casts, it was necessary for Glen to clean the sediments away and get the water out of the footprints. When I met up with him on the morning of September 24, he was baling water out of holes with a bucket—and each hole was a footprint.

Mike O’Brien, who works for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, is also trying to preserve a record of the footprints. He uses a camera mounted on a large T-pole, to produce a gridwork of overhead shots. Mike had made metal grids which we put at precise locations in the riverbed. Later, Mike will electronically stitch these photos together to produce a large image with all of the footprints on it. He hopes to eventually interface his images with Google Earth.

Entirely by chance, we had been joined by Brian Miles, a petroleum geologist who is also the volunteer curator of a small paleontological museum in South Texas, the Brazosport Museum of Natural Science. Brian had heard Glen Kuban and me talking, and he wanted to join us for a few hours. We were glad to have him along. While Mike held his T-pole perfectly perpendicular, Brian would operate the remote control shutter. So on this day there were three of us helping Mike with his overhead photographs (see photograph above). We helped him move the metal grids around also.

Glen, Brian, and I spent a lot of time explaining the footprints to the scores of visitors who were walking in the river bed. Nearly without exception, they were fascinated by the footprints and by what could be learned by studying them. Parents helped their fascinated kids walk right alongside the dinosaur trackways. Some of the teens and tweeners asked some really good questions. And they made some pretty insightful guesses. Some of the guesses were way off, but some were pretty good. And all of these guesses could have been formed into scientific hypotheses. Dare I hope that some of the kids we talked to that day might go on to become scientists, science educators, or at least science hobbyists?

The sun was hot (around 100 degrees) and we got sunburned and thirsty, but we had a good day of work. Glen helped me make videos; Mike got a lot of photos; Glen, Mike, and I explained a lot of things to the visitors. Oh, and by the way, all four of us were doing this for free. To be continued.

Don’t forget to check out my videos about the dinosaur footprints on YouTube. There will be a new one today, starring Glen.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dinosaur Adventure part 2

As described in the previous blog entry, I went to Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas, where I met with Glen Kuban, who showed me hundreds of dinosaur footprints in the bed of the Paluxy River. During the ongoing drought, the riverbed was exposed, and with it footprints left by dinosaurs 100 million years ago, when the ground on which we stood had been part of the Gulf of Mexico. In the globally warmed Cretaceous world, sea levels were higher, and reached up into what is now north Texas; also, North America was not quite in the same place that it is now.

Glen helped me make a few video clips, which I am posting, about one a week, on YouTube. In two of them, Glen shows the viewers the dinosaur footprints and explains what you can learn from them. Last week I posted a Darwin video clip; this week, an interview with Glen.

The most interesting revelations about dinosaur life come from not the individual footprints but the trackways of prints. The trackways were left by at least two species of dinosaurs. One was the large, long-necked, herbivorous dinosaur species in the genus Paluxysaurus, which was a sauropod similar to the brontosaurus. What can we learn about these dinosaurs from their trackways? First, Glen pointed out, a group of them was walking in the same direction. They apparently lived in herds rather than as loners. Second, the trackways were close together, indicating that the sauropods walked with their legs underneath them, like birds, rather than out to the side, like lizards. Third, these dinosaurs, though their tails may have weighed a ton, did not drag their tails. This sounds to me like the sauropods had a pretty healthy metabolism and lots of muscle. If they had dragged their tails, they would have left grooves in the mud. See one of the above photos of sauropod trackways. These are the same trackways that I photographed back in March, when they were underwater and visible as green smudges in the photos that I took at that time.

The other species of dinosaur whose prints are common in the Paluxy River bed was a theropod in the genus Acrocanthosaurus; it was sort of a medium-sized T. rex. These dinosaurs left three-toed footprints. The above photos include some adult footprints and a baby footprint (with my foot for scale). The theropods were walking in lots of different directions, and were probably foraging. While it is possible that they were tracking the sauropods to attack and eat them, it is also possible that they were searching for shellfish to eat in the tidal flats. By knowing the size of the dinosaur and the distance between the footprints, it is possible to calculate the speed at which they were walking. Most of them were ambling along, as you might expect if they were looking for seafood left by the receding tide, but in another location the prints were far enough apart that they must have been running at almost 30 miles per hour, which is a very rapid speed for such a large animal—and this was in mud! Imagine how they could have run on solid ground!

The footprints were made 110 million years ago, and subsequently hardened into stone, along with the sediments that had covered them. There may be hundreds of thousands of dinosaur footprints in this layer of rock in northern Texas, but almost all of it is covered with hills. Only in a few places, such as the Paluxy River bed, has this rock layer been exposed by recent erosion. You can’t even find them in the nearby Brazos River, which has apparently eroded through them. Since nobody is going to spend millions of dollars to bulldoze away the hills to expose new footprints, the Paluxy prints represent a rare trove of dinosaur footprints.

And they do not last very long once they are exposed. Large areas of the Paluxy River bed, which used to have dinosaur footprints (even as recently as the 1980s, when Glen began his work), have broken up due to erosion caused by the river. It doesn’t take very long. The river undermines the trackway layer, and then the layer (of soft limestone) cracks and crumbles. Glen and I stood on an approximately 100 square meter slab of limestone with tracks in it, while right beside it was a larger area of riverbed with broken stones which had formerly had dinosaur footprints.

So if you want to see the Paluxy footprints, you’d better go now, while the drought is going on (before God heeds the entreaties of Governor Perry) and before the footprints erode away. To be continued.

Don't forget my website and, if you are interested, my religion blog.

Don't forget my website and religion blog (if you are interested).

Friday, October 7, 2011

Dinosaur Adventure, Part 1

I had three choices of how to spend the weekend of September 23. I could have gone to the field meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences; I could have gone to the Prairie Festival at the Land Institute; or I could go look at dinosaur footprints in Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas. I chose the third option. This was the weekend when I had a chance to meet with some of the people who know more about these footprints than anyone else in the world. As an evolution educator, author, and blogger, this was an opportunity I did not want to miss.

I visited Dinosaur Valley State Park last March, as described earlier in this blog (see here and here), but on the previous visit I was by myself and the river was still flowing. Some of the photos I posted from that visit show dinosaur footprints underwater. This time, in addition to my chance to meet the experts, the river was nearly dry. Texas has had a long drought, costing the state economy over $5 billion, and to which the April 21, 2011 day of prayer proclaimed by Governor Rick Perry has not brought an end. Such a drought is a disaster in all ways except one: it exposed the bed of the Paluxy River, which has dinosaur footprints.

They say that you can throw a rock anywhere in Texas and it will hit a barbecue place that is better than anyplace else in the world. I entered a barbecue place, where a sign on the wall said, “Cowboys: No shirt, no service; Cowgirls: No shirt, free beer.” Yep, I’m in Texas all right. In reality, this place had no beer and everyone was clothed. I was with Glen Kuban, who has an expert knowledge of the Paluxy River dinosaur footprints.

As we ate our brisket, Glen told me his story. Our lives were strangely parallel: we are the same age, we graduated the same year, and we made the same migration from creationist fundamentalism to Christian theistic evolution at about the same time. We were both elected as Fellows of the American Scientific Affiliation, a Christian scientific organization, the same year. The difference is that, while my abandonment of creationism involved learning about research done by other people, Glen’s abandonment of creationism resulted directly from his research into one of creationism’s most notorious claims. Also, I am a professor, while Glen sells molds and casts of fossils and fossilized footprints, primarily to museum gift shops. Glen is sort of a latter-day Alfred Russel Wallace or Henry Walter Bates, the nineteenth-century naturalists who funded their travels and work by selling specimens they collected in the tropics. He also maintains a website with lots of Paluxy information.

Here is the notorious creationist claim. In 1982, a creationist named Carl Baugh was looking around at the fossilized dinosaur footprints in the bed of the Paluxy River. He found some impressions that, to him, looked like they might be human footprints. He also obtained some footprints that looked like very flat carved human footprints (see earlier blog entries above). Whether he carved them himself or credulously obtained them from someone else I am not prepared to say. If humans and dinosaurs left footprints in the same mud at the same time, then the entire evolutionary time scale is off. This does not necessarily prove the creationist version of Earth history; after all, why would dinosaurs and humans have been walking leisurely along in the mud in the middle of the Flood of Noah? But, thought a young Glen Kuban, the Paluxy footprints would be a really important thing to study.

So in 1980 Glen began to study the footprints. He quickly discovered that the so-called human footprints that were still in the riverbed were actually dinosaur footprints partially obscured by mud when they were originally made and afterwards. And another discovery surprised him. He found that the creationists, even those who used the “Paluxy man prints” as evidence of creationism, did not seem to be interested in studying the Paluxy prints. They seemed to be satisfied with hearsay and content to accept Baugh’s carved prints as evidence sufficient to overturn all of evolutionary science. Glen may be the only person in the world whose view of creationism was changed by actually studying the Paluxy dinosaur footprints. It appears that some prominent creationist writers and speakers continued to tout the “man-prints” even after they knew, and admitted, that the man-prints were fake. We’re not saying who the creationists are.

I looked forward to the next day, September 24, on which I would work in the dry riverbed with Glen and with another expert, Mike O’Brien. To be continued. This month's blog entries will be about the dinosaur footprints.

I have also posted a YouTube video in which Charles Darwin visits the dinosaur footprints.

I also maintain a religion blog which I have not heavily advertised because I want to keep this evolution blog and my website focused on science.