Wednesday, September 3, 2014


We are currently in the process of updating and the TAPHOS Lab blog.
Stay tuned for research updates!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Kuja Nyumbani: Coming Home to Tanzania: Part II: First Sights


Beautiful flowering bush near our dorm.
If any readers can identify this please comment!
I am awake. My body is functioning on both central and Tanzanian time. While I am tired and trying to sleep at 4:00, my circadian rhythm is telling me it is 19:00 and not time for rest. After about 20 minutes I doze off again, only to be awakened from a deep sleep at 7:00.

I arise from my bunk and change clothes, heading to the bath house to brush my teeth and splash water on my face. As I exit the room I realize this is the first my eyes have laid upon Tanzania in the daylight.

I walk outside and find myself surrounded by a beautifully manicured lawn dotted by bushes exploding with color; reds, oranges, yellows, and massive trees that twist and turn to form an image of nature that is familiar from books, but I soon realize that books cannot begin to describe the sights that I am seeing. They have an existence all on their own. I look up above the tree line and the horizon meets the sky with a great and awesome mountain; Mount Kilimanjaro. The snow-covered peaks and valleys of the volcano contrast sharply with the sea-blue sky.
Flame Creeper (Pyrostegia venusta) outside
our dormitory.

Kilimanjaro is massive, the largest mountain in all of Africa. It dominates the skyline from my perspective at MWEKA. As small wisps of clouds are beginning to form halfway up the slopes, I realize the sheer size of the volcano, and how high its summit truly is.

John arrives at 7:00 to see that everyone is awake and moving and invites us to breakfast at the dining hall. Some of the girls in the group exchange a playful banter and with John, who is being intentionally vague and telling them "I must now take you all somewhere. To get there you need to follow me. So follow me, and we will go somewhere" he says with a wink, illustrating his joy in playing innocent jokes.

Breakfast consists of lots of fried foods. Sweet sandwiches of bread, sugar, and honey (not wholly dissimilar to French toast), a donut-like pastry with onion and lentils, and samosas; a crispy-fried triangle pastry filled with seasoned ground beef and onion reminiscent somehow to an eggroll. Finally, a red hot-like frankfurter is added to the plate, causing the students to wonder why we are having hot dogs for breakfast.

College of African Wildlife Management, Moshi, Tanzania,
on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
On a side table, the cooks have laid out freshly sliced oranges and mango, instant coffee, and a fresh mango juice. The mango juice is a hit with the students, who are pleased to find it is served with every meal.
Overall, the food is very tasty and filling. As students finish their plates, John chides them about eating more.

"You have not eaten any fruit yet." John explains to one slightly confused student.

"Um...No, not yet."

"You must eat more. There is nothing on your plate." John responds.

Starting the day off right...
Other students laugh and nervously giggle as John continues to tease them too. I lean across the table and quietly remind them that the local customs are quite different; if you clean your plate, it is viewed that you were not given enough food to eat. Realizing this, they begin to leave a few crumbs left on each plate.
After eating breakfast, John discusses the itinerary for the day with us. We will be touring the campus, meeting students and faculty, and then heading in to Moshi to visit a market later in the afternoon.
Our first morning in Africa has been a beautiful eye-opening experience. Learning new customs can often be challenging. However, with friendly hosts such as these, the challenge is a welcome one.


People are busy all around me. Students and staff of MWEKA are preparing for safaris for their class programs, organizing tents, piling up mattresses, airing sleeping bags. After breakfast, John leads us toward the main part of the MWEKA campus and to a small classroom. We take a seat and are introduced to one of the lecturers at MWEKA, Dr. Omory Chambegga. Chambegga is in his late 40's. Chambegga introduces himself and we all go around the room and do the same. He then explains the history of the College of African Wildlife Management.

Dr. Julius Nyerere,
First President of
Until the 1960's, most of Africa was controlled by European colonialism. This also included wildlife management. When colonialism ended and many African nations became independent, a need for national wildlife management was needed. In 1961, Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, delivered a speech at a symposium on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in Arusha. This speech, which was later dubbed the Arusha Manifesto, emphasized the importance of wildlife conservation in East Africa:

"The survival of our wildlife is a matter of grave concern to all of us in Africa. These wild creatures amid the wild places they inhabit are not only important as a source of wonder and inspiration but are an integral part of our natural resources and our future livelihood and well-being. 

In accepting the trusteeship of our wildlife we solemnly declare that we will do everything in our power to make sure that our children's grand-children will be able to enjoy this rich and precious inheritance.

The conservation of wildlife and wild places calls for special knowledge, trained manpower, and money, as we look to other nations to co-operate with us in this important task - the success or failure of which not only affects the continent of Africa but the rest of the world as well."

Representatives and conservationists from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania all collaborated on the development of an educational model for wildlife management, the management of national parks, wildlife maintenance, and game reserves. By 1963, the College of African Wildlife Management (locally known as MWEKA) was founded and welcomed its first 25 students.

The college sits on the southern flanks of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the buildings of what used to be a German nursing school. Students at MWEKA learn about wildlife management, wildlife tourism, and hunting. The programs for these concepts consist of six months to three years of schooling and hands-on experience and students receive a certificate, diploma, or degree depending on their individual program.

College of African Wildlife Management entrance.
While hunting in the United States is a popular sport and well-regulated by individual states, the western view of big-game hunting in Africa is a negative one. Images of white westerners proudly standing over a killed elephant in Africa will commonly cause outrage among animal rights groups and Internet forums. However, just as hunting in the USA is part of wildlife management, so is large game hunting in Africa. It is also a major source of income for national parks to maintain their preserves. The students at MWEKA are learning to be rangers, wardens, safari guides, and hunting guides. They are learning the behavior and overall ecology of their natural wildlife to ensure that only fully-grown adult male animals are hunted. This is very important for the survivorship of wildlife units. A population of Impala, for example, may have a higher proportion of males to females. This is problematic for the herd; there are only so many females that can produce offspring among a larger number of males, who are extremely competitive in this situation. However, if the proportion is inverted and the herd is dominated by females, then the male competition is decreased and more offspring will be produced. While natural carnivores participate in this process, today commercial hunting - under strict maintenance and management by parks and reserves - plays a key role.

After a thorough discussion of the history of the school, we thank Dr. Chambegga for his time and we move on with a tour of the facilities, including some unexpected sights in the biology lab…

For more information on the College of African Wildlife Management, visit:

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Kuja Nyumbani: Coming Home To Tanzania: Part 1: Departures and Arrivals


The last day and a half is a jumbled blur. I know I left Oshkosh, Wisconsin at 10:00 on the 5th of January, 2014. I know I arrived at O'hare International Airport in Chicago, IL on the 5th and flew out around 17:00. After that it's a bit hazy. I know I watched a lot of movies on the plane to Amsterdam and that I arrived in Amsterdam on the 6th but I'm not sure what time. It was early in the morning according to Central time. I called Sarah, my wife, once I figured out how to get the WIFI to work in the airport. She helps me work it out; I think it was around 8:00 when we landed in Amsterdam. It was around 3:00 in Oshkosh.

There is a total of 21 people in our group. I am tagging along with this team of 17 students from the Department of Psychology at UW Oshkosh lead by Dr. Jim Koch and Dawn and Dave Detloff, also from UWO. The purpose of the trip is to travel to Tanzania, learn about the culture and people, and conduct animal observations at five national parks to study behavior. In an unexpected coincidence, I am interested in the same plan; focusing on horned bovids, I am curious to see if variation in horn morphology is consistent with fighting style. With this information, I can elaborate my current research on injury frequency and distribution in horned bovids and make comparisons with injuries in ornithischian dinosaurs. I am also interested in looking at predator/prey interactions and relationships for research comparisons with the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, as well as starting some experimental taphonomy studies based on bones and carcasses in the various parks. Finally, I am interested in talking with someone about getting the ball rolling to start doing field work in the Tendaguru formation of southern Tanzania.

As we board the flight to Kilimanjaro, I still have no clear idea what time it is. My watch is set to home time, but I'm not sure if the date is correct, or whether it is in the morning or afternoon. I'm sure a majority of this confusion is just due to a lack of rest. The flight is roughly seven hours.  I have dozed for a total of about 20 minutes in the last day and a half. After a 15 hour series of flights and tremendous jet lag, we landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport.


21:00 local time. I've been up...too long. We depart the plane on to the tarmac and I am instantly hit with a blast of warm air and a sweet and slightly bitter smell in the air. As I walk across the tarmac in the dimly lit airport I can see the faint outline of palm trees and jungle. I enter into the entrance of the customs area at Arusha Airport. I wait in line and get my visa stamped by a woman dressed in a black sweater and military fatigues. Despite the ridiculously expensive vaccines I was told I had to have, she doesn't even ask to see my paperwork showing my yellow fever vaccination; I am holding it in my hand.

I am passed through the visa station and claim my bag from the carousel. There is no customs table. I gather with the group and after everyone has had their visa stamped we exit the airport to a dark jungle and welcomed by cab drivers.

Two men stand their waiting to greet us. One is dressed in a military tan shirt and pants and wears a black beret. He is small and slender, wide cheekbones pushing through a tight face. The other wears a poorly fitted button up white shirt and baggy tan pants around his large belly. His face is smiling. He informs us that he is from MWEKA and introduces the driver. The large man is Joshua Moshi.

We exit the airport arrival terminal and are led to the vehicle that will be transporting us to the College of African Wildlife Management (MWEKA).

The vehicle is a huge monstrous safari vehicle with the tarps rolled up, opening the sides to the cool Tanzanian evening. We load up our luggage, pile in, and the driver and his companion hit the road - with me standing on the back of a safari truck surrounded by luggage. I pull my balaclava up around my face as the dust from the road surrounds us as we start the hour-long drive to MWEKA near Moshi. We pass by people on motorcycles at break-neck speeds, villagers walk on the side of the road with bundles of sticks tied and balanced on their heads. In the darkness of the night, the stars are small but countless beacons guiding our way down the road, the wind blowing in my face and the smell of new flowers to tease my nostrils. I feel like an excited dog with his head out of the window as we speed down the dark road towards our destination.


We arrive at MWEKA on a rough road composed of large volcanic boulders and cobbles and pull up to a dimly lit mess hall. There are two young women waiting for us with a dinner prepared. We are also introduced to a young man with a younger face and a sharp smile. He introduces himself as John, a new Tutoring Assistant at MWEKA and the liaison to our group during our trip. As students excitedly begin attempting their newly learned Swahili, John corrects them with a laugh and a smile. "Say 'Jambo' means 'hello'...say 'mambo' means 'how are you'...say 'poa' means 'I'm good'...say 'asante' means 'thank you'. This is our first introduction to our new Tanzanian friends; they find a harmless humor in hearing foreigners butcher their language, but love it even more that we are willing to try.

At the entrance to the cafeteria is bucket of warm water and a bottle of hand soap. Everyone lines us to take their turns washing their hands; a habit that begins every meal. As we stand in line, a young man walks past, fist-bumping all the students. He is about 23 years old, stocky, and strong. He warmly smiles at everyone he fist-bumps, working down the line saying "Karibu, Big Small...Karibu, Big Small."

The Choo: Pronounced to rhyme with "low"
though you'd think it would be "poo"...
We are served a small buffet of barbecued chicken, rice, and stewed vegetables. Despite the numerous meals and snacks supplied by the airlines during our lengthy flight, the warm meal at our destination is very welcomed by all and a heartfelt "asante sana" is offered, and a "karibu" is said in reply. The flavors are excellent; a mild spice with a savory smoky flavor.

After dinner, we load back in to the safari vehicle and are driven across the road to our dormitory. The building is a small, 4-bedroom bungalow with an old fireplace in the front room. Security bars are fastened to the windows and locks are on all of the doors. Jim and I take a room together while the students break off in to groups and settle in to their beds. I am exhausted, excited, and slightly overwhelmed. I get my bags unfolded and start to settle in.

Part of settling in also included my first experience with a Tanzanian toilet (choo). Interesting. I lay in my bunk and try to do some reading, but the last 36 hours finally take their toll, and I drift off into a deep and sudden sleep. Tomorrow I will wake up to my first vision of Tanzania and an entirely different world.

Friday, November 29, 2013

TAPHOS Lab - The New Face of JPTaphonomy

Back in 2010 when I decided to start a blog, I had ambitions of eventually building up a lab at UW Oshkosh where I could showcase the research that students were conducting. While there was a little of that over the last few years, I haven't kept at it as much as I would like to (except for Jurassic Brews...I've kept up on that one!)

However, in seeing the work that colleagues around the world have been doing, following their progress through blogs, and seeing the benefits of branding your lab, I've been more than inspired. 

So, in the successful fashion of Andrew Farke, Mike Ryan, Denver Fowler, Erik Snively, Mike Taylor, and Larry Witmer (to name only a few), here is the new face of JPTaphonomy...

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Jurassic Park and a Career 20 Years In the Making

I didn't always want to be a paleontologist, despite what those who have known me for the last 20 years may say.

Before my fascination with ancient life, I was still interested in strange creatures - the ones from the movies. Before I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist, I dreamed of being a special effects and makeup wizard like Stan WinstonRick Baker, and Tom Savini. This obsession started with a viewing of "An American Werewolf in London" when I was...probably too young. The groundbreaking special effects in that film (the shockingly realistic transformation scene in particular) instantly had me hooked.

Whenever a new horror or sci-fi film came out, I read as much about it as I could. How did they make that? How did they come up with the design for that creature? How did David Naughton go from being a "Pepper" to a monster rampaging through Piccadilly Circus?

I've written about this topic a little bit in my post on the dynamic status of Archaeopteryx, but this is where my person shift took place. Walking in the door from school and seeing the April 26, 1993 TIME magazine sitting on the table, the cover showing the reconstructions of bizarre new dinosaurs and the headline "The Truth About Dinosaurs" with the tag "Surprise: Just about everything you believe is wrong".
Eye-catching, to say the least.

TIME Magazine Cover: Dinosaurs -- Apr. 26, 1993
This is the initial catalyst that started a series
of headaches for my parents throughout the 90's.
However, it wasn't just the cover story that caught my attention. The teaser in the upper right corner - "Plus: The Making of Spielberg's Jurassic Park" also piqued my interest. Also, embedded in this issue was an impressive two-page fold-out advertising the film; the classic T. rex logo opening up to a vast jungle canopy with tiny helicopters flying low among grazing sauropods.

While the feature article discussed new evidence for an evolutionary relationship between modern birds and extinct dinosaurs, the "making of" article was impressive as well.

However, I must at admit that I was a bit lost. The article talked about the animatronics and computer animation advancements engineered for the film, and discussed a film plot about "genetically engineered dinosaurs". I was in 5th grade. I didn't know the meaning of "genetic engineering". The word "engineering" in context of movie special effects gave me the following impression: This movie was going to be about a park of robotic dinosaurs that go haywire and run amok. (Ironically, at this point I was not yet aware of Michael Crichton's Westworld and the Simpsons had not yet done the famous "Itchy and Scratchy Land" episode...).

The title "Jurassic Park" sounded familiar as well. I vaguely remember seeing the book being sold in stores in 1990. Upon reading the TIME magazine issue, I asked my mom if she had ever read the book. While she hadn't read it, we did own a copy that she received as part of a "book of the month club"; destiny sat on our bookshelf and I didn't even know it.

Crichton's novel is a bit daunting to an 11 yr old 5th grader. I won't pretend I understood every single word or the various discussions taking place in the numerous "Control" chapters upon my first reading. At the time I was more focused on the dinosaur descriptions anyway.

Upon seeing the movie on June 11th, 1993 (first of four screenings) I was completely blown away. It became the only thing I talked about for the next few years, much to my parent's and friend's annoyance. I collected the toys. I had the posters. I had the bed sheets. My April 26th 1993 issue of TIME became a tattered and wrinkled passport that I read over and over again. My fascination with Jurassic Park started like my fascination with all monster movies; how did they do that? However this time as I researched the science behind the effects, I became entranced with the fascinating science more than the effects themselves.

While I had always been marginally interested in dinosaurs, this was the tectonic shift that changed everything. I started collecting books on dinosaurs, collecting local Ordovician fossils from the dolostone quarries in Pecatonica, IL, and even started to harass the "famous" paleontologists I had read so much about. I was able to reach many of them by phone during their office hours, asking them questions for a few minutes about how they became paleontologists, what they studied, etc. As I had these brief conversations with John Ostrom, Jack Horner, and Robert Bakker, my excitement grew more and more.

Of all the conversations I had, Bakker was by far the most outgoing and talkative. He was encouraging and happily provided information on coming out on a dig at Como Bluff. In the summer of 1996 I went on my first dig at Como with Bakker and the Dinamation crew through the Tate Museum at Casper College.

Would you trust this man around
your son in the badlands of Wyoming?
I have heard rumors that astronauts who went to the moon found it difficult to top that experience when they returned. Regardless of the validity of this anecdote, I can relate. After discovering Apatosaurus nun-chucks, excavating a chewed megalosaurid femur, and finding shed baby theropod teeth, how do you go back to school and say "I'm not sure what I want to do when I grow up"?

At least once a year I revisit the Jurassic Park films and books. They have become a little dated, to be sure, but this is to be expected; while the science continues to advance, the films and books remain the same. No amount of updated CGI or 3D enhancements can really change them (you hear that, George Lucas...?). Divergences in the books and films are commonly critiqued, which is also to be expected. The JP movies are fun popcorn adventures. The books (at least the first one) actually have some compelling ethical philosophies that are lost in the film versions. However, as time goes on and we learn more about dinosaur biology, the "dated" status of the films are upheld and the true philosophy of the story comes out - these aren't really dinosaurs - they are genetically engineered animals made to look like our interpretations of dinosaurs at a given time. With the numerous discussions currently happening regarding "de-extinction", this concept is more relevant today than it was in 1990 or 1993.

Upon its release 20 years ago, Jurassic Park inspired a whole new generation of future researchers that have explored deeper into the geologic past. Given the amazing discoveries made by previous Jurassic Park-inspired paleontologists over the last two decades, imagine what we will know in another 20 years from the kids who put on their 3D glasses and experience this film in 2013.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Research Update: Hydrodynamic Properties of Pachycephalosaurid Crania

On Monday of this past week I had the pleasure of seeing my first research student at UW Oshkosh, Carol Bigalke, give her first talk at professional meeting. At the North Central GSA in Dayton, Ohio, Carol presented on "Hydrodynamic properties of pachycephalosaurid crania". Carol has been working with me on pachycephalosaurid cranial lesions since I started at UWO in the fall of 2010, and will be graduating this summer.

Resin cast of Stegoceras validum.
When she submitted her abstract to GSA in January, it was intended to be a poster. However, due to a need to fill the oral session, the session chair contacted her, praised her abstract, and invited her to give a talk instead. I can say with all honesty that she nailed it on Monday. She handled questions very well and fostered further discussion later in the day with other curious participants. Congratulations, Carol!

 The hydrodynamic processes of isolated dinosaur bones in general have been overlooked in scientific research. Pitting and erosive structures on pachycephalosaurid frontoparietal domes have been attributed to taphonomic processes, such as weathering and erosion. Furthermore, the high frequency of isolated domes characterizing the pachycephalosaurid fossil record suggests a unique taphonomic history. In order to investigate the hydrodynamic properties and potential roles of taphonomic processes on pachycephalosaurid domes, a series of transport experiments were conducted to assess the competent velocities and settling orientations of a collection of pachycephalosaurid specimens. 
Resin casts of Hansseusia sternbergi used
in flume experiments.

Casts of three pachycephalosaurid domes and skulls were composed of a urethane resin with a comparable average density to compact and cancellous bone (r = 1500 kg/m3), and placed in a flume with manual velocity control for transport experiments. 

Data was recorded for competent velocity, transport distance, and settling orientations upon resting and burial of specimens for 35 trials per cast. Though specimens vary considerably in mass, the results suggest specimen shape has a greater influence on transport and hydrodynamic behavior than size; significantly lower velocities are required to transport complete skulls than isolated domes. 

10-meter flume
UW-Milwaukee Department of Geology
Resting and burial orientations of specimens vary significantly for domes and skulls. Isolated domes generally settle and rest on a dorsal or ventral side with their lateral sides facing upstream. Alternatively, complete skulls have a higher tendency to rest on a lateral side compared to isolated domes. These results suggest domes are likely deposited as lag following disarticulation from other cranial and skeletal elements. The near-equal occurrences of domes resting on dorsal and ventral sides is at odds with the exclusively dorsal distribution of pitting and “erosive” features on frontoparietal domes, suggesting taphonomic processes are not a primary cause of these features. The high variability of transport velocities and settling orientations such as these offer significant implications for future taphonomic studies on large vertebrate remains.

(All molding and casting was performed with permission from lending institutions - Thanks to Scott Williams at the Burpee Museum of Natural History and Don Brinkman at the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. Very special thanks to the Dinosaur Research Institute which supported this research!)