Why is Geoscience Important to All of Us?

What processes form these iron balls filled with sand?

What complex processes formed these iron balls filled with sand? Moqui balls may provide information about life on other planets.

Being a geoscientist is not just a career, it’s a way of life. We ask many of the big questions that young children ask, but then put those questions through rigorous testing to understand the world around us. Many of our questions are complex and require a combined knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, computational methods, and more. But that’s what keeps us going. We each specialize in a particular field of geoscience and collaborate with other scientists around the world to get meaningful answers. Then we apply that knowledge in ways that are useful to support day-to-day and long-term decision-making for all of us.

To ensure scientific integrity, both the tests we use and our interpretation of the results are critically assessed by experts in the field. Only after this process, are the tests, results, and interpretations recognized and recorded in the scientific literature. Due to the complexity of geoscience, this information is often presented to the public as levels of risk or the likelihood of a potential event or effect. It’s not possible to determine that an earthquake will happen on a specific date or that climate will change by an exact number of degrees (at least not yet!). Individuals, organizations, businesses, and policy-makers can then use this information to make informed decisions about risk, which resources we use, where and how we build infrastructure, how to avoid costly disasters, as well as how we affect Earth’s biosphere and ourselves.

A late Cretaceous flower that lived just six million years before the extinction that killed the non-avian dinosaurs. Perhaps a dinosaur stopped to smell this flower before it fell to the ground and was buried in flood plain sediments.

A late Cretaceous flower that lived just six million years before the extinction that killed the non-avian dinosaurs. Perhaps a dinosaur stopped to smell this flower before it broke off, fell to the ground, and got buried in floodplain sediments.

As an evolutionary paleoecologist in the geosciences, the research I do investigates the role diversity plays in evolution. I ask questions like:  “How do we measure diversity?”  “How do we observe and test diversity in the fossil record?”  “When is diversity resistant to change and when is diversity vulnerable to change?”   When we consider that two-three million years is the average mammal species lifespan and that we (Homo sapiens sapiens) have only existed two-three hundred thousand years, we begin to understand the importance of these questions. We still have at least one million seven hundred thousand years to go just to be average!

My interest in science communication is to make scientific research more accessible to those of us who don’t have the time or inclination to read the literature and to help those without a science background decide for themselves when someone is not telling the whole story or twisting the facts to suit their cause. This is why it is also important to foster young minds in the sciences so that there is always someone to help future generations test the data and share results so that the public can make informed decisions.

Please enjoy quick science insights and adventures in science posted on this page. Access to my research and efforts in science communication are also available through this site. Have a question? Send it to me by email (clairecleveland@psu.edu), and I’ll try to answer it or find an expert who can!

Fifth-graders visit Penn State to learn about the earth sciences and do authentic research in paleoecology.

Fifth-graders visit Penn State to learn about the earth sciences and do authentic research in paleoecology.

Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) curates more than 33 million specimens. Yet, visitors only get to see a tiny fraction of these on display. Even the Fossil Halls, one of the largest museum exhibits in the world, contains just 600 or so of the museum’s finest specimens. These specimens may be the most beautiful and complete, but what about the millions of specimens behind the scenes?

Most visitors don’t realize that museums require huge storage space to curate many times the number of objects on display. These storage spaces may not appear exciting at first glance, but this is where paleobiologists learn the most about Earth’s past. Rows and rows of cabinets, shelving units, and crates contain the data that support scientific research. It’s critical that the collections are maintained so that if one scientist wants to check the reproducibility of another scientist’s work, the specimens are available for testing. When new specimens are added to the collection, we can test those specimens to see if previous conclusions still hold up. Then, scientists are able to use the same collections to test more questions and add to our knowledge.

Large specimens and unprepared fossils are catalogued on shelving units (left). Smaller specimens including skulls and limbs are catalogued in museum cabinets (right).

The collections are so large, there are still many specimens waiting to be prepped and cataloged.

This summer, I was given access to the AMNH collections for my oreodont research and got to see some of those specimens behind the scenes. Oreodonts are a diverse group of prehistoric herbivores found only in North America. It’s easy to remember their name if you like Oreo cookies. They exhibit different body forms at different times and survived for more than 30 million years. Some look a lot like a pig, but others have traits that are cat-like or tapir-like. Robert Bruce Horsfall’s reconstructions of what oreodonts may have looked like were published with Malcolm Rutherford Thorpe’s research in 1913. Thorpe and Horsfall looked at some of the very same fossils I am using in my research.

Promerycochoerus carrikeri is pig-like (top), Eporeodon socialis is cat-like (bottom left), and Brachycrus laticeps is tapir-like (bottom right). Sketches by Robert Bruce Horsfall.

Though extinct today, oreodonts are the most common mammal fossils found in Eocene and Oligocene deposits. It’s hypothesized that there may be a connection between grassland expansion in the Miocene and their extinction seven million years ago. It is surprising that not even one of such an apparently diverse group survived while camelids, horses, and peccaries survived through the Miocene into the Pleistocene. I’m researching changes in oreodont body forms during grassland expansion to try to understand why oreodonts disappeared from the west-central Great Plains about eight million years ago. This research will help us understand more about extinction and which mammals species may be more at risk today.

The oreodont collections at the AMNH are extensive. There are 240 cabinets of fossils containing as many as 9 drawers of fossils in each cabinet. Specimens that are too large to be stored in the cabinets are cataloged on shelving units. The specimens are generally organized in the order they evolved (as understood at the time the specimens were added to the cabinets). So as I work through the collection, I get to observe oreodont morphology, oreodont body forms, at different snap shots in time. This type of research depends on large collections like this one. It’s an exciting place to be!

This is an example of a fossil slab. This entire slab was excavated, wrapped in a plaster jacket, and transported to the museum. This slab includes two, nearly complete oreodonts.

Each of the 240 oreodont collection cabinets contains multiple drawers with multiple specimens in each drawer. Labeling helps researchers find the species, time periods, and localities they need for their research.

The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge Supports Scientists and Humanitarians

A recent question about my path into the sciences took me back to my favorite days as a young girl visiting the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Morris County, NJ. I have such vivid memories of the boardwalk, skunk cabbage, school field trips, learning how to make maple syrup, and its visitor center full of curiosities. It became a favorite Saturday occasion to talk nature with my father along the marsh edges, identify the plants, birds, and other animals with my mother or to celebrate the mountain laurel bloom at the end of spring with friends. Even then, I deeply appreciated the space and time the Great Swamp provided.

Claire getting a closer look at the marsh marigolds below the boardwalk at the Great Swamp.

Though it took me until my 40’s to become a traditional scientist, I wanted to go back and revisit the place where my life in science really began, way back in the 70’s. After a bit of research as an adult, I learned about the Great Swamp’s controversial history, its role in establishing the environmental movement in New Jersey, and its importance in the establishment of national wilderness areas. “The Great Swamp Wilderness Act of 1968 established the first wilderness area designated within the Department of the Interior.” I immediately became a member of Friends of Great Swamp and am planning a return visit with my parents during the laurel bloom this June.

The importance of shared resources like the Great Swamp can not be taken for granted. The Great Swamp and resources like it, support water quality, families, diversity, emerging scientists, wildlife, and education for all ages. I hope everyone who has supported the Great Swamp with their time, money, dedication, persistence, and influence appreciate the impact they have made not only for the environment but for humanity too. Their legacy is an inspiration for this and future generations. Thank you!

My mother enjoying the beauty of the mountain laurel bloom at the Great Swamp.

Penn State’s Association of Women Geoscientists Support Girls in STEM at Mount Nittany Middle School

Solving crimes as crime scene investigators. These girls make it look like so much fun!

“These girls are amazing!” “We had such a blast!” These were the comments I heard from Penn State’s Association of Women Geoscientists (AWG) who attended the Mount Nittany Middle School Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) after-school program for girls. This series of events is coordinated by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and Discovery Space of Central Pennsylvania. Each week, nearly 50 sixth through eighth-grade girls get together to build roller coasters, solve crimes, and design high mountain rescues in their spare time. It’s all about putting STEM to work to solve real-world problems. I had to join the fun and see the action.

Gabby Ramirez helps students at the blood type matching crime lab.

Gabrielle Ramirez, Penn State AWG’s outreach coordinator, organizes groups of graduate and undergraduate student volunteers to assist with a number of local science outreach events such as this one. I joined this week’s group of volunteers including Judi Sclafani, Hailey Ramirez, and Elizabeth Andrews. We helped with a crime scene investigation to solve the mystery of the missing Little Nittany Lion. Each team of girls investigated blood samples (synthetic of course), fingerprints, powdered residues, and pen ink left behind at the crime scene to determine the most likely suspect. It was both serious work and great fun. I hope to join these ladies again in a couple of weeks!

It takes some work to match fingerprints.

Then there’s that AHA! moment.

 

 

 

 

Teamwork at the blood matching crime scene lab.

Just a few more tests and they’ll have their evidence from the powdered residue crime lab, ready for trial.

 

 

Geoscientists at Penn State Look to the Arts to Improve Their Field Skills

Geoscientists use sketching to gain a more detailed understanding of what they are observing. There is nothing like it to gain insight into small but significant changes in the size, shape, texture, orientation, and organization of structures in the field, under the microscope or on the lab bench. However, many of us did not include an art class in our undergraduate degree. Since observation is perhaps the most critical skill we use, I spearheaded an effort to organize a sketching class for geologists. There was no difficulty in finding interested participants.

Sean Bodley instructs us how to conceptualize a range of shading.

With significant financial support from the Association of Women Geoscientists at Penn State (AWG), the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania came through for us by putting together an art class just for geoscientists during the fall of 2016. Sean Bodley, art instructor, took the time to design a lesson plan that complimented our existing observation skills with drawing techniques that could be developed even by the most inexperienced artist. Let’s be honest, some of us had a hard time drawing convincing spheres or even cubes, myself included. Participants in the class included women, men, graduate students, undergraduate students, and a few professors too.

Sean provides individual guidance as participants practice their skills.

It was a great chance to surround ourselves with scientists from all levels of experience and learn something new together. Being off campus had the added effect of making the classroom feel less formal. We had a lot of fun though I had to chuckle at how seriously many of us took our assignments. After four two-hour sessions, we had been introduced to shapes and scale, forms with dimension, perspective, and shading. During the last class, we worked toward breaking a still life image down into these components and rebuild the image from its simplest parts. It was fun to draw something completely different. Sean had set up some flowers from another artist’s garden. Below are some images to demonstrate the difference between our first and last day’s artistic expertise.

From left to right, Shelby Lyons, Judi Sclafani, and Priyanka Bose.

We look forward to a short-course this spring to enhance our skills in the field and to provide the same opportunity to incoming students next spring. We are also hoping to offer at least one short-course each semester to build our skills over time. Many thanks especially to the hard working women who made this possible, including Priyanka Bose (undergraduate student coordinator), Judi Sclafani (Ph.D. Candidate and co-President AWG), Abby Kenigsberg (Ph.D. Candidate and co-President AWG), and Shelby Lyons (Ph.D. Student and AWG Treasurer).

 

On left, we practiced drawing our cell phones during the first class. On right, we advanced to drawing a still life adding perspective and shading.

Participants develop skills by practicing shading techniques with different objects.

A more advanced student demonstrates landscape technique drawn from a black-and-white photograph.

Wetland Transitions at Cay Creek Nature Preserve, Georgia

The Cay Creek Nature Preserve boardwalk invites visitors to observe ecological change between fresh water to intermediate water to brackish water environments. If you are traveling to Georgia, do not miss this little gem!

Top row progressing from fresh to transitional water environments (L-R). Middle row shows transitional environments. Bottom row progresses from less to more brackish water environments (L-R).

Portraits by Paula Peeters Inspire a New Perspective on Forests

A poor photograph of a spectacular specimen with six attached leaves. This specimen is one of thousands of botanical fossils curated at the MEF.

This summer, I enjoyed the good fortune of working with Ray Carpenter, a world-class paleopalynologist, while studying the Río Pichileufú collection curated at the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio (MEF) in Trelew, Argentina. Better known for discovering the largest dinosaur in the world, this fantastic museum curates some of the most significant (and beautiful) paleobotanical collections in the Southern Hemisphere. Working side-by-side with Ray in one of the museum’s labs, we often were so absorbed in our work that we spoke little. Yet, we often found time during lunch to share our interest in Earth’s changing environments. It’s funny how life works, I was sitting with Ray thousands of miles from home on the other side of the world, and there I learned about Paula Peeter’s, an ecological artist, who lives thousands of miles away in Australia.

A coloring page from Paula’s Bimblebox Wonderland.

Paula combined her Ph.D. in ecology with her talent and love of the arts to create an entirely new way of capturing and communicating the ecological stories that forests tell. Her ecologically accurate forest portraits, allow us to view the very different traits of individual forests just as we would when looking at portraits of people. I was captured by her artwork and perspective. Not only did I immediately purchase one of her prints, but I found a large portrait frame to display the work authentically. Every time I look at Paula’s print, I feel as if I recognize that gum tree forest, just as if it were a good friend. Thank you Paula!

 

One of a number of Paula’s educational cartoons. To see more of Paula’s ecological art and nature journaling, check out her site, Paperbark Writer.

 

The flooded gum forest portrait that is framed in my study and keeps me company as I work.

Paleobotany in Patagonia, Argentina

A labor of love. Anna Whitaker, undergraduate assistant from Penn State, on right, helps to catalogue some of the 1200+ specimens from Río Picheleufú.

After more than four weeks of investigating the Museo Paleontológico Bariloche Río Pichileufú collection at the Museo Paleontológico Egido Feruglio in Trelew Argentina, my husband and I explored the Iberá Wetlands in Corrientes Province, Argentina.

One of the many traditional roadside shrines to Gauchito Gil, a beloved Argentine folk saint who took from the rich to give to the poor.

A raptor’s welcome to the wetlands

Jorge, our guide to the wetlands, is the son of the first park ranger at Lagunas Ibera surrounding Colonia Carlos Pellegrini. It was an honor to learn from him in his family tradition.

During the day, the caiman are pretty relaxed and we were safe in the large rowboat. Things got much more interesting at dusk when we took out a small canoe to observe their evening activities.

life in Argentina’s wetlands…

Making sure to get back and check in with the Park Rangers as the sun sets.

Making sure to get back and check in with the Park Rangers as the sun sets.

A Geological Reward

After 6 days in the field doing intense stratigraphic field work in the Guadalupe Mountains Carbonate Platform, we were rewarded with a trip down into Carlsbad Caverns National Park. It was well worth the 72 floors down and back!

The entrance to the cave is massive. I was only disappointed we did not have time to stay for the bats emerging in the evening.

An exquisit artistic rendition of the bats.

Visitors are greeted with an artistic rendition of the bats and a reminder to help prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome. This disease is spreading quickly from the northeast and threatens all species of hibernating bats.

Stalactites stick tight to the ceiling and grow toward stalagmites on the cave floor.

The slow growth of calcite deposits creates awesome forms within the cave. Stalactites stick tight to the ceiling and grow toward stalagmites on the cave floor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friends in the Field

I often do field work in remote locations and sometimes alone, but I’m never really alone. These beautiful companions stuck around for hours while I worked. I think the raven on the left was hoping for a bite to eat, but he stuck around to watch me work without any tasty reward. The owl was probably trying to get some sleep before I disturbed his slumber to take this photo.

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Moqui Ball Mystery Solved?

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-4-50-51-pmOne of my favorite complex mysteries in geology, moqui balls found in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. “They really represent a record of how water moved the rock millions of years ago, and the next generation can use them to understand water and life on other planets,” said Marjorie Chan, co-author of the new study and a geologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Read more about the unraveling of this mystery below.

Click the link below for a news article about this science.   http://www.livescience.com/47936-how-moqui-marbles-form.html

Click the link below for the scientific literature behind this science.  http://sp.sepmonline.org/content/sepsp102/1/SEC12.body.pdf

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