Sunday, June 22, 2014



A spectacular 600 foot tall cliff of Madison Limestone extends for miles along the Jones Creek trail.  Somewhere near the base of such a cliff lies is an important fossil fish locality awaiting rediscovery.


Recently my colleague, Dr. George Engelmann, and I hiked into the deep river canyon country of Dinosaur to relocate a fossil fish locality discovered over half a century ago.  Information was sparse --- the site had received only the briefest of mentions in the scientific literature.   We had good information about where the site is, somewhere along a 100 meter or so stretch of the base of a great cliff system.  However, we knew almost nothing about the kind of rock the fossils occurred in or the nature of the fossils. Were they just scales, teeth, fragments of bones, large bones or small?   Nor did we know what kind of fish they were. 

Our interest in the site was multifold.  It is the only Paleozoic fish fossil locality in Dinosaur.  The site occurs in what is mapped as the Lodore Formation.  This rock unit is Cambrian in age, about 515,000,000 years old.  While primitive fish are known from the Cambrian their remains are small, fragmentary and incomplete. So any site with Cambrian fish is certainly worth investigating.

Of additional interest are the few cryptic statements in the scientific literature suggesting that the rocks the fossils occurred in are in fact not Cambrian in age but Devonian.  Dinosaur National Monument has the most complete geological record of any NPS unit.  It’s 23 different formations preserve the pageant of the physical and biological evolution of our planet over the last 1.2 billion years.  Yet some time periods are missing from Dinosaur, removed by erosion in some distant past.  One of those missing periods is the Devonian.  So if Devonian age rocks are hidden in Dinosaur, their discovery would fill in one of the gaps in our geological record.  The fish fossils, if age diagnostic, might well be the crucial bit of evidence for solving this puzzle.

During the Devonian the evolution of fish was explosive and the seas were populated with a vast array of fish.  Some, such as sharks, would be familiar to you. But many would look otherworldly.   Some were small, some were the size of small whales.  Some were flat, slow-moving bottom dwellers, others were streamlined, fast-swimming, open water predators.  Some were naked, others were encased in heavy plates of thick boney armor.  Some evolved blunt teeth adapted for crushing shells, others had teeth for catching and slicing other fish, and some had no jaws at all.  Some were blind, others had excellent vision.

Some of the possible Devonian fish from Utah whose remains we were fishing for.  A. Acanthodian  B. Osteolepid sarcopterygian  C. Actinolepid arthrodire  D. Cyathaspidid heterostracan  E. Pteraspidid heterostracan.  F. Antiarch placoderm.  G. Cardipeltid heterostracan.  H. Cephalaspid osteostracan.   All to same scale; cyathaspidid is 20 cm long (from Elliott et al. 1999)

Given this diversity and abundance, the right fish fossil could turn out to be diagnostic for the Devonian and give us the needed age for the rocks in question. To be age diagnostic the fossil need not be complete.  Even small bones, if they can be identified as belonging to a group of fish known only from the Devonian, would provide the crucial age information.  As preparation for the trip we read the literature on Devonian fish elsewhere in Utah and felt fairly confident about what kinds of fossils we would be looking for. 


Dinosaur National Monument is cut into three sections by the spectacular canyons of the Green and Yampa River.  However with cliff walls sometimes well over 1,500 feet tall, getting to the canyon floor is very difficult and there are only a few places where you can do it on foot.  The Jones Creek trail is one of those rare access points. 

Jones Creek is a testimony to the erosional and life giving powers of water in the desert.

The trail is eight miles round trip and runs along Jones Hole Creek, ending where the creek flows into the Green River 1000 feet below the canyon rim.  This year-round flowing stream supports an oasis of riparian vegetation that makes for a wonderful hike amidst trees and along canyon walls, set to the music of flowing water spilling over rocks and cobbles. If you ever visit Dinosaur and have a day for a hike, this is the place to do it!  You will never forget it.  It is also an excellent trout fishing stream and we passed several anglers trying to coax a trout to take their fly.  Little did they realize that the two encumbered hikers passing them were also on a fishing trip, but for much older piscines.


Once at river level we traversed the canyon to the rocks in question.  Google Earth had given us a somewhat erroneous image of the terrain. What had appeared to be a ledge that we wanted to examine was actually a cliff about 15 meters tall and not possible to negotiate.  Above that loomed the towering face of the Madison Limestone nearly 600 feet high.  To get to the lower, smaller cliff that might contain the fossil site we had to climb up a high angle slope nearly 100 feet high. It was covered by a mixture of soil and loose rocks ranging in size from gravel to blocks the size of kitchen tables. Everything on the slope threatened to move under our feet foot and it was two steps up and one step back all the way up.

No Country For Old Legs.  Only my orange pack prevents me from disappearing into the vastness of Dinosaur's river canyon country.

Our search strategy was two fold.  First traverse the lower slope, keeping an eye out for fossils in the loose blocks covering it.  The innumerable loose blocks and rocks which have fallen onto the slope from above presented us with an immense random sample from the cliffs that we could not climb over.  Hopefully some might contains bits of what we came here for.

Second, once we got get up to the lower cliff we could examine at the least the lower several meters thickness of rock.  Maybe, just maybe, we would find some fishy tidbits in-place.

Although it was June, this has fortunately been a relatively mild summer so it was not one the blistering, demoralizingly hot days we have so often encountered in the past.  Nevertheless, the searching proved arduous.  Most vexing was the slope, as the covering of loose rocks kept wanting to slide with each step. When an interesting object was seen in a rock, it was a challenge to balance while holding a rock near one’s face and a 10x hand lens to one’s eye.  Occasional gusts of wind didn’t help either.

Walking long the base of the lower cliff was not much better as we were still walking on the loose slope, and the exposure of the bottom of the cliff undulated up and down. Each step was a combination of balance, bracing, and trying not to slip while simultaneously looking closely for the remains of ancient fish remains in alternating beds of sandstones and mudstone.

It took three hours of this struggling to cover the slope and lower cliff.


We didn’t find a single fish fossil.

Not a scale --- Not a tooth --- Not a rib 

We were absolutely in the right place, but the fossils we came for eluded us.

Were we disappointed? Yes.

Were we frustrated? Yes.

Have we given up?  Maybe not. 

We’ll need to see if there is any way to find out something about the kind of rock the fossils had been found in. Was it sandstone, mudstone, limestone?  What color was the rock?  Green, yellow-brown, purple?  If we could find that out and recognize it as one of the layers we had seen while examining the area, then a trip back would be worth the effort.  


While we didn’t find any fish fossils, the rocks were full of fossils of a different kind.  They teemed with trace fossils, the preserved burrows and trails made by creatures as the crawled on and plowed through, lived and died on, the sand and mud deposited 515,000,000 years ago on the sea floor of a long extinct ocean.

The trace fossils were of many different sizes, shapes, and constructions.  One of the most striking is known scientifically as Rusophychus. These traces are in the form of two elongated lobes and were made by trilobites as they excavated a depression into seafloor sediments to form a resting place. Some were so wonderfully preserved that one could see the obliquely oriented scratches made by the trilobite’s legs as it dug into the sediments.  Of interest is that the Rusophychus we saw were much larger than the trilobites known from body fossils in this formation in our area. So some giants remain to be discovered.

The paired lobes of Rusophycus, the resting trace fossil made by a trilobite.

This well preserved Rusophycus shows ridges running across each lobe.  Those ridges were made by the trilobite's legs as it dug into the seafloor.

The makers of the many other trace fossils we found is less clear, as similar simple burrows and trails can be made by many different kinds of marine animals.  Some are long and slender, some are sort and wide, some are unbrached, others split along their path, some cross one another, others stay separate, some are trails made on the surface, some are burrows in the sediment.   Nevertheless, these ancient hieroglyphs, formed by long gone animals, are silent testimony to an ocean that teamed with life. Virtually none of these trace fossil makers are known from body fossils in this formation.

Here is a selection of photos shot in the field showing some of the trace fossil diversity we discovered.


In spite of what you might see on TV, not every fossil excursion is successful. Our ancient fishing trip was hampered by a lack of detail in some areas but we had enough good information to justify the effort. If we had found the fish we might have been able to solve one of the paleontological mysteries of Dinosaur National Monument.  We did unexpectedly find a diverse deposit of trace fossils that had not previously been reported in detail. 

In the midst of slogging around on the slippery, rubble laden slope, leaning on our picks to stop, catch our breath, and rest our legs, we took a moment to look up from the ground and see the grandeur that was around us. Sometimes your office has no walls and that can be a really great thing.  Those are days you never forget, even if you don’t find the blasted fish bones.
No room with a view.  If you are going to not find fossils this is a magnificent place to not find them.


Restorations of Devonian fish from Utah is from:  Elliott, D.K., Reed, R.C., and Heidemarie, G.J. 1999. The Devonian vertebrates of Utah. in: Gillette, D.D. (ed). Vertebrate Paleontology in Utah.  Miscellaneous Publication 99-1 Utah Geological Survey: pages 1-12.

Cliffs above Jones Hole, Jones Hole Creek, No Country for Old Legs:  George Engelmann

All others: NPS/Dan Chure

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


There are few things as frightening as the idea of being attacked by a large crocodile.  It is truly the stuff that nightmares are made of. 

Sandy Rossi can testify to that.  When 27 years old she lost an arm to a Nile croc in the Epulu River in Zaire --- a river that isn’t normal habitat for Nile crocs.  She just happened to have the misfortune of running into a wanderer.  As she rinsed her hair at the river’s edge the croc struck, grabbing her by her arm, dragging her underwater and beginning death rolls.  "You could just feel the power," Rossi said. "He'd yank me back and forth to see if I was dead yet. Then he'd roll me some more."  I vividly remember watching a TV interview with her where she chillingly recounted how she was relieved when her arm came off because she realized she finally had a chance to get away from the jaws of death. So she lost part of an arm but escaped with her life.

Today crocodilians are top predators in freshwater and estuarine environments. Salt Water crocs even traverse marine waters to get to off shore islands. Throughout their long 200,000,000 + year evolutionary history one group or another of crocodilians has occupied the niche of top freshwater predator. The immense late Cretaceous Deinosuchus could certainly kill dinosaurs, including T. rex. But today’s crocodilians give the wrong impression of the wonderful evolutionary history of this group. This is a case where the present is not a good guidebook to the past.

The crocodilian fossil record reveals that in the past these animals had a much more diverse, and sometimes surprising, anatomy and ecology, making livings in ways quite different from extant species. Some were slenderly built, long limb terrestrial runners, some were filter feeders, some were capable of walking just on their hind legs.  And some, maybe the most amazing of all, gave up the carnivorous lifestyle completely and became plant eaters!

Simosuchus clarki is the weirdest of all known crocodilians living or extinct. One can be forgiven for not even recognizing it as a crocodilian in the first place.  Known only from the Cretaceous age of Madagascar the first specimen was described in 2000. But since then on-going field work on the island has produced multiple additional specimens, all very well preserved --- which is a good thing given how truly odd this beast is.

A restoration of the pug-nosed Simosuchus, a most improbable crocodilian.

Simosuchus was not a giant; just a mere 2 ½ feet in length and weighing around 20 lbs.  The body was completely enveloped in a dense, closely packed set of boney armor plates.  This armor severely restricted the side to side motion of the body and along with the short stubby tail, is strong evidence that Simosuchus was a land dweller and not a swimmer.

The skeleton of Simosuchus (above) is strikingly different than that of an alligator (below).

However, it is the skull that is most unusual and so highly specialized that it appears nothing like the living crocodilians we’re accustomed to (and I won’t even bother with all the detailed technical skeletal specializations in the skull).  The most important thing to remember is that these fossil skulls are complete and uncrushed.  The “missing” long snout is not broken off, rather Simosuchus evolved a very short face with a squared off snout.  This pug face inspired the generic name, which means “pug-crocodilian”.

Skulls of an alligator (left) and Simosuchus (right) viewed from above.

Skulls of an alligator (left) and Simosuchus (right) in side view.

Even more bizarre are the teeth.  The vast majority of crocs have pointed, conical teeth, just perfect for puncturing and holding onto flesh (and human arms).  No so Simosuchus.  This weirdo has teeth that are flattened side to side, with a blunt crown bearing a few denticles.  Teeth of similar shape are found in several living herbivorous lizards as well as a range of extinct herbivorous reptiles, including plant-eating dinosaurs.  Recent analysis of the jaw mechanics of Simosuchus shows that this creature was not able to generate enough force to cut through protein (i.e. muscle and skin) but just could generate just enough to cut through cellulose (plant tissue). 

Teeth of an alligator are just fine for puncturing delicate skin and muscle.

The teeth of Simosuchus, too weak to cut muscle, were just fine for slicing up plant material.

Simosuchus is known from remarkably complete skeletons and skulls and has been analyzed in great detail in a number of scientific publications. All authors agree that Simosuchus was a crocodilian that had left meat eating habits behind and evolved into a plant eater.  But it might not be the only one to do so.

Simosuchus is closely allied to the Notosuchia, an extinct group of small crocodilians found in Cretaceous rocks South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. They all have shortened faces, although not as severely a truncated snout as in Simosuchus, and are terrestrial in habit. Notosuchians also show remarkable tooth specializations, some evolving a multi-cusped tooth crown structure like that seen in mammals, and it is likely that a number of notosuchians were plant-eaters. Since they are not dinosaurs, notosuchians don’t get much press, making them unsung weirdos, with Simosuchus serving here as tip of the herbivorous crocodilian iceberg.


2010. Simosuchus clarki (Crocodyliformes: Notosuchia) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar.  Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 10: 236 pp. [Part I: Overview of the discovery, distribution, and geological context of Simosuchus clarki (Crocodyliformes: Notosuchia) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar.  Part II: Craniofacial morphology of Simosuchus clarki (Crocodyliformes: Notosuchia) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar.  Part III: Postcranial axial skeleton of Simosuchus clarki (Crocodyliformes: Notosuchia) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar.  Part IV: Appendicular skeleton of Simosuchus clarki (Crocodyliformes: Notosuchia) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar.  Part V: Osteoderms of Simosuchus clarki (Crocodyliformes: Notosuchia) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar.  Part VI: Phylogenetic history of Simosuchus clarki (Crocodyliformes: Notosuchia) from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar.]

Gignac, P. and Kley, N. 2013. Inferences on the feeding biomechanics of the bizarre pug-nosed crocodyliform Simosuchus clarki. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Program and Abstracts, 2013: p. 84.

Salter, J.  Crocodile Attack Can't Destroy Her Love of Life: Africa: Spirited Missouri woman lost her arm to deadly reptile a year ago. Undaunted, she's preparing to revisit the remote forest in Zaire where she nearly died. L.A. Times on-line


Nile crocodile feeding triptych:  

Crocodile with human hand

Modern Alligator skull: Jollie 1962 (modified)

Simosuchus skeleton: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 10 Part I
Simosuchus skull and teeth (modified): Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 10 Part II
Simosuchus restoration:  Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 10 Part I

Modern Alligator mississippiensis skull: Jollie, M. 1962.  Chordate Morphology. Reinhold Press: 478 pp. (modified)


Monday, January 13, 2014


The adorned remains of Saint Felix, once of the parish of Tafers, Switzerland now on exhibit at the Museum of Art and History in Fribourg.

A remarkable amount of my life has revolved around bones, both recent and fossil.  I have cleaned them, excavated them, scrambled across rocky landscapes under the blazing desert sun looking for them, mused and mulled over them, measured them, photographed them, x-rayed them, CT scanned them, preserved them, conserved them, cursed them, praised them, read about them, written about them, molded them, cast them, put them on exhibit, accumulated well in excess of 10,000 books, scientific papers, and pdfs about them, and discussed them with students and colleagues across the globe.  Many people I know have done the same  - it’s par for the course for vertebrate paleontologists. Given that experience, one might become jaded about bones, but that hasn’t happened to me yet. I still find bones of great interest and am challenged by the story they tell us about the evolution and biology of life on Earth. 

However, I recently read two books that, in spite of my many decades of working with vertebrate fossils, revealed to me a new and wonderful story about bones, this time about the human skeleton.  The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses and Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs are by Paul Koudounaris, who holds a PhD in Art History from UCLA and so has a scholar’s interest and knowledge of his subject matter. He visited over 70 sites on four continents while researching these books. In addition to his keen intellect, Dr. Koudounaris possesses the all too rare ability to write about technical subjects in an engaging, easy to understand style that keeps the reader interested without sacrificing accuracy or the deeper meaning of what he writes about.  On top of that, the books are lavishly illustrated with hundreds of spectacular photographs that are even more riveting than the text. So when you finish these books you not only come away with a skull crammed full of new details but you will want to immediately turn back to the first page and start again.  These are not books you only read once. You will reread them and share them with friends and family, although how they will react is another matter.


Although this is known as The Chapel of Skulls in Czermna, Poland, the ceiling is made of lashed together human thigh bones.
I’ll just give the briefest outlines of what the books are about and show a few images.  If you find this of any interest whatsoever, track down these volumes – you will not be disappointed. Take the world tour via the printed page and remember that a number of these sites are open to the public. Someday you might be in the neighborhood and can pay a visit.

The Chapel of Bones (and indeed it is), Parish Church of Nossa Senhora da Expectacao, Campo Maior, Portugal.

The Empire of Death explores our changing familarity with the skeletal remains of dead. In the not too distant past, interacting with the bones of the dead was an important part of Christian spiritual life.  Bones were amassed, sometimes in staggering numbers. 

The Paris Catacombs contain the remains of as many as 10,000,000 Parisians, with vast walls piled up by type of bone, sometimes with skulls arranged to spell out Latin phrases. In other cases, tens of thousands of bones literally line the walls and hang from the ceilings of chapels.  Full skeletons were dressed up in robes, armor, vestments, and other clothing.


Tomb of Enrique Torres Belon, Church of Sanitago Apostol, Lima, Peru.

These sites were seen as sacred and worshippers went to them to solicit aid from the dead.  Unlike today, people were not repulsed by the dead but instead saw them as a source of help and hope.  As can be seen in the photographs in The Empire of Death, a number of these churches still have magnificent remains in-place.


The remarkable 8 foot wide chandelier is made of human skulls, limb bones, and pelves, All Saint’s Chapel, Sedlec, Czech Republic.
Heavenly Bodies traces the strange history of skeletons from the Roman catacombs.  During the battles of the Protestant Reformation in 16th century northern Europe, many Catholic churches were sacked and their religious reliquaries and holy objects wantonly destroyed as non-Christian. As part of its counter reformation, the Catholic church sought to re-establish itself in those areas and replace the holy objects that had been lost.  But where to get so many saintly objects in such a short time?  From the Roman catacombs of course, where first century corpses were in abundance (although many of them were of pagans).  With little or no information about the bodies, church officials, including the Pope simply declared them saints, sometimes en mass, gave them names, sold them to distant churches, and shipped them off. 

The dressed and bejeweled skeleton of Saint Felix, Gars am Inn, Germany.

They were received with great fanfare and proudly and prominently exhibited in churches.  To better honor these holy relics, nuns, at great expense, sewed clothing for the corpses/skeletons and often festooned them with colored glass, gold, and precious jewels.


Saint Gratian in Waldassen, Germany dressed in sumptuous Roman military attire.

These “catacomb saints” remained powerful religious emblems and objects of adoration in the churches until the late 18th and early 19th century, when they began to be seen as too ghoulish or idolatrous to remain there.  Many were destroyed or removed and put in storage. Some are still in public areas.

Regardless of your visceral reaction to the outlandishly decorated skeletons, one cannot deny the beauty of the sewing and wirework, the attention to detail, and the ornate jewelry worked into the clothing and sometimes the bone itself.

Fine eye, nose, and dental wirework on Saint Benedictus, Hergiswil, Switzerland.

Paul Koudounaris' personal website is, as he states “an online resource for charnel houses and burial catacombs, and a supplement to the book The Empire of Death”.  It contains spectacular photos and information on even more sites than are in his books.  It is well worth a visit.


Koudounaris 2011: The Chapel of Skulls, The Chapel of Bones, Tomb of Enrique Torres Belon, All Saint’s Chapel

Koudounaris 2013: Saint Felix (Tafers), Saint Felix, Gars am Inn, Saint Gratia, Saint Benedictus


Koudounaris, P. 2011.  The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses. Thames and Hudson Press. 224 pages 

Koudounaris, P. 2011. Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs.  Thames and Hudson Press. 192   pages