Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Walcott 2009 day one!

It is so good to be surrounded by sensible people and rainy weather!

Two disclaimers: first this conference is really well organized. Jean-Bernard Caron of the department of Paleobiology at the Royal Ontario Museum and his staff did a terrific job organizing this with frequent emails, and an impressive, yet thrifty abstract volume with schedule, etc. There is also a beautifully produced "field trip companion volume", and we received copies, too. The Banff Centre really has excellent accomodations; the food is good and plenty; the coffee is very good and there is plenty at the Max Bell building where the presentations take place. It's kind of like an upscale college experience; Jim and I have a deliciously comfortable king sized bed. Second, we're really glad to be at a conference where we don't have to be "working." We're just fans of these people who seem careful about taking care of their junior faculty and graduate students.

The very first talk was given by Desmond Collins, also of ROM, about the discovery of the Burgess Shale in 2009 by Charles Walcott of the Smithsonian Institution. We are familiar with this story, but he had great historical photos, including Governor Burgess of the NW Territories (the government of the site at the time). Desmond Collins has led scientists and students up to the Walcott quarry for years and the hike is a major accomplishment for the enthusiast. The history continued with J. Stewart Hollingsworth discussing Walcott's insights on the Esmerelda Basin in Nevada and California, where he had hunted fossils before his Rocky Mountain adventure was so successful. The trilobites he'd found in Nevada are apparently similar to the ones in Siberia. David Bruton of the University of Oslo shared photos and connection to Harry Whittington having joined in the 1967 exhibition to the Burgess Shale. This began Whittington's fossil collecting for Canada since Walcott had removed his collections to Washington DC. David Bruton also relayed greetings from Professor Whittington who remains in England (he's 93!).

The very energetic and enthusiastic Keynyn Brysse of Princeton explained contemporary ideas about phyla and cladistic systemization. Before I get myself into confusion because her explanation as an historian of ideas was very clear, I will quote from her abstract: "Decisions about how to classify Burgess Shale organisms are not mere disputes over stamp collecting, but instead reflect such critical biological issues as how to define a phylum, and whether all animal species belong in this most fundamental of taxonomic groups." She also suggests that the controversies between naming and classification, and contingency and convergence reveal how scientists think about evolution. She had very cool graphics which I realized sadly were not reproduced in my iPhone tweets and cited a couple of references I plan to look for. She must be a wonderful teacher. Jim and I need to study up on the new nomenclature of "crown" and "stem" groups.

Jim and I were, we admit, expecting that much of this conference would really be over our heads. However, we were also able to follow the discussion Alison Olcott Marshall, of the University of Kansas on the use of new non-invasive spectroscopy techniques to analyse the biopolymer walls of microfossils known as acritarchs. Are they embryos or animals? Maybe microalgae? Dinoflagellates? Her clear presentation was a good introduction to us of some of the issues in Protereozoic fossil study. Most early lifeforms are assumed to be benthic, bottom dwellers, and it is during the Cambrian that animals start floating around inthe water column. The acritarchs might be a move from benthic to pelagic. Her working group expresses enthusiasm about these techniques for further study of preservation of the fossils.

Frank Corsetti of USC expressed interest in environmental considerations of fossil microorganisms of the Doushantuo formation (China). There's a connection between fossil retention of 10% of the world's phosphate resources and the fact that nowadays that sulfide oxygenating bacteria concentrate and rapidly release phosphate.

Our curiosity was piqued by the presentation by Guy Narbonne of Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario of the "best preserved Ediacaran fossils in the world." These are rangeomorphs, found in Spaniard's Bay in Newfoundland. Professor Narbonne said these fossils are by the beach, in a beautiful spot, with B& B's nearby. However, they are also receiving UNESCO World Heritage designation, so we will have to look at them from a distance. The photos are beautiful: rangeomorphs ahave fractal like structures and seem to build up frond like structures. He spoke longer later in the day in a keynote, further expanding on these beautiful and intriguing lifeforms.

There was also a scientist from Russia we'd met briefly at breakfast. Ekaterina A. Serezhnikova of the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences made an elegant digital presentation of the attachments Ediacaran biota make to the sea floor. She documented finds from Ediacaran deposits in the White Sea area of Russia. These attachments support the benthic location for these fossils.

If I review all my notes now, I'll be up all night. We definitely came away from the talks today understanding that Stephen Jay Gould opened up the world of invertebrate paleontology to the rest of us at the risk of making the Cambrian model of contingent evolution. Too much the myth of individual consciousness, I think! Scientists today work to find pre-Cambrian evidence of evolution and convergence so that the Burgess Shale is less singular and fits into models of richness, complexity and the fascination in the nexus of ecology and evolution.

At dinner, we met Marianne Collins whose illustrations, whether pen and ink or color, grace many texts accompanying these discussions and, we think, had shown some at the Tyrrell Museum when we went there both times with Robin. I asked her about her palette, which is very colorful and almost psychedelic, and she replied that she began when the Royal Ontario Museum wanted murals appropriate to a general audience, including children. As a scuba diver, she wanted to remain loyal to underwater limited vision, but didn't want everything to look like Bermuda, either. So she uses green and contrasting colors to distinguish the animals. She thinks others caught on later. You can sort of get an idea via this link; I'll try to update if I can http://www.rom.on.ca/exhibitions/nhistory/nhhighlights.php

Also, it was announced that a blogger from Nature was posting. I haven't found the link yet.


Aerinah said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed my talk, and thank you for your very kind comments about my teaching style!

It was a fantastic conference, wasn't it? I agree that it was incredibly well organized. Jean-Bernard and his team deserve a huge shout-out.



Chris said...

I think it was towards the end of his field season in 1909 that Charles Dolittle Walcotte initially discovered the fossil collection now exposed in Walcotte Quarry, not 2009 as stated above.