Category Archives: Paleontology

A Regular Family Business Part Deux

I have touched more on family here than I think I intended. But, while that train is rolling, let’s just ride for a while. There is something interesting when you start looking at your family tree. I have mentioned before how in just a few generations you are directly related to more people than populated England in the 16th century. The idea that from all those strains you take your name from one, and hang some sort of cultural, ancestral, and /or genealogical identity on that is rather odd. I am sure it happens to others, but my case is really interesting since the only side of my family that has not been in America since the opening of the 17th century is the side I get my surname from.

Granted, that side also connects be to crazy people like Alexander “Bokhara” Burnes and Robert Burn(e)s. Their grandfather is my Great^7 Grandfather. We were the lucky younger children who, instead of inheriting land and titles, moved to the United States. Interesting side note, while on a trip to Vancouver, B.C in order to get engaged, my girlfriend and I had left the aquarium and was walking through Stanley Park, where a lovers of Robert’s poetry society had erected a statue of the bard. It seemed rather fitting that I proposed to my girlfriend by the statue of my cousin and in a fell swoop soon remove all of her ancestry and replace it with my last name. This idea of who you are just gets more and more ridiculous, doesn’t it?

While we are picking and choosing a new system arises when one goes to university. Especially when one goes to university and stays for as long as I have. You get an academic genealogy. Your faculty family tree can go directly through mentors/advisors and without giving you something like a name that people can hang your identity on for you, you get the benefits of all those academic ancestors who have studied before. Phd-comics has a neat little comic that highlights this phenomenon:

See how troubling something like this can be–and this from February 9, 2011. But I have talked to some people about having people that are their advisors serving on my committee and that making us academic cousins. So, there is something to this. After all I have been told that the Germans take this very seriously and refer to their advisors as “Doctor-Father.” Not sure if that changes to Doctor Mother in some cases. Come to think of it I know several people who refer to their advisors as a Mother—-ahem, that’s not what we are here to discuss.
Mine is something of an interesting case, again because I think so, because it’s geography parallels by real ancestry. Without getting too technical or deep into the politics of how this works, I will run the circle for you. I am currently studying at the University of Oklahoma. I received a Master’s at Lamar University where my mentor–Dr. Jim Westgate–my doctor father if you will– still works. Jim studied at the University of Texas-Austin under Drs. Ernie Lundelius and the recently passed Wann Langston, Jr. (top right)  Wann studied at the University of Oklahoma under John Willis Stovall. (above left). Wann and John named Acrocanthosaurus atokensis in a 1950 publication. If you remember in an earlier post I talked about my family living in Atoka at this time and working their fields that were within walking distance of the Acrocanthosaur find. (If you don’t remember it’s the earlier post Dino Dynasties)
I am on the left, Dr. Jim Westgate on the right, and
an academic sibling Jordan Mika.
Something to think about. Your academic ancestry can be direct or even branch out if you so choose. But, be warned, if one of your academic Aunts’s doctor-father was someone of imminent note, and you bring that up in casual conversation, it could do you harm–especially if your new forced family members like to use your extended advisor-in-law’s books for their classes.
Which is sillier? To mark who you are because of so many random decisions along the way, or mark how you think because of some random decisions along the way? Truth is, they are all interconnected in ways that are probably past the point of comprehension. Sure, there are no academic genetics that help structure your actual being, but if you stay in long enough, you will pick up on and adopt certain things which your advisor does. It is likely, that what they do is in some form a piece of what they inherited from their advisor and so on. So, while your non academic evolution as a person, as an individual with a surname might be considered standard under the Darwinian model, it sure looks like Educational Evolution still follows Lamarckian principles.
Keep sticking your neck out. Remember, you are building on knowledge that your advisor built on before, and with each passing academic generation the bar is raised even higher. Driven by that inner “need” to know more, answer more questions, graduate, and eventually take on a young grasshopper of your own, who, if you’ve done your job right, will have a longer neck than you.
This has been either the best analogy or the worst parable ever.
Welcome to how my brain works,


A Regular Family Business

Here is something that I have shared with close friends. It is so much fun that it should go out on the record. I have traced as much of my family tree back as I can find at this point. Writing and coursework have gotten in between me and finishing. Not to mention records locked away somewhere in Dublin. Every single line of my family has been in the United States since the early 17th century. All, that is, but one. That one happens to be the one that gives me my last name.

But that is not the fun part. My great-great-great grandfather was born in Ireland, and at some point made his way to America.

But that isn’t the fun part either.

His son–my Great-great grandfather lived and worked in Oklahoma. I mentioned how close his place was to the locale where the Acrocanthosaurus fossil was discovered and so you have seen the below image before.

Now, here is the fun part. Living the in Indian Territory on either side of the turn of the 20th century creates characters not even found in books. Three brothers came with all kinds of stories. It was told that when James was a kid he would throw silver dollars in the air for Frank James to shoot. Absolutely no way to prove that, and given the storyteller capabilities that flow through the tree it’s doubtful, but fun. 
The Burnes Brothers (L-R George Washington Burnes 2/22/1876-7/10/1965; James Benjamin Burnes 12/2/1872-2/21/1955; and Robert Eli Burnes 2/8/1870-12/24/1924
You can image how excited I was to get to see that photo. I have requests in with friends who are better at photo editing than I am to try and get this out to its finest. Now the first thing that went through my mind when I saw this was That’s amazing and one of the coolest photos I have ever seen. 
Below is the second thing that went through my mind.                               

Something that makes this even funnier is that I have always said there were certain characteristics in Daniel Day-Lewis’ Butcher Bill persona that sounded like my father. Further still, the University I studied geology when this movie came out was located quite near the locale of the Spindletop Gusher. (Lamar University-Beaumont, TX, where I subsequently graduated with a degree in History minoring in Geology, Anthropology and Earth Science and an eventual M.A. in History) Turns out the producers of There Will Be Blood rented some of the century old oil rig platform/setup for use in the movie. Of course it is only there at the blowout scene and is covered with oil, but it is still a claim to fame. 
Now,  have brought the bloodline back to Oklahoma for my PhD. I live a couple hours from our old homestead. So full circle, I suppose. 

Suiting Up


         With the beginning of Fall term, “Suiting up” usually refers to those lucky individuals who are on cushiony scholarships to play a game. This brief aside will not be about that.  This short entry will entail the suit.

        Now that the weather has cooled off enough to wear a suit, I am back into mine on a daily basis. Funny thing about it cooling off enough to wear a suit, when I have photos of desert field work being done in a suit. There are stories of Raymond Dart wrapping fossils in his jacket and waistcoat in the field to bring them back home.

       Most modern experiences with suits go something like this: You are dragged to the mall (if you have one) or some other department store as a child in order to purchase an ill fitting suit of clothes for Easter or fancy dress occasion, deaths, weddings, etc.  The thing fits in exactly no places and you hold your breath for a week hoping you don’t grow enough that the trousers leave you looking like Jethro Clampett. You probably only wear the suit that one time, you avoid eating or drinking while wearing the suit and generally take all care in the world not to treat it as normal clothing lest it lose its “suitiness.” Unless of course you are under the age of about 8 and then all bets are off and you have your coat off rolling around on the ground wrestling with some other ringbearer or honorary pallbearer over the little redhaired girl from your class.

       Fast forward to owning a real suit. Well, not that far. Your next suit is probably not much better. Usually it will come from the same department store, and more often than not, from the same elderly clothing attendant that smells of old spice and death. You will get the one that closest resembles your body type, and are off looking like either like an overstuffed bag of lettuce, or a standard circus/revival tent following an elephant/choir stampede. The most thought you give to tailoring is getting the legs hemmed, IF they were not already prehemmed to some existing length that, at least within the world of Dillard’s can vary anywhere from 1 to 2 inches up to different colored trouser legs.

       You will still treat it as the one item of clothing that while wearing you will do as few things as possible so as not to “ruin your suit.” And everyone knows they sew the pockets for a reason so don’t undo it the whole thing will come apart. I actually know someone who’s mother told them that. Either way it still only comes out once and awhile and you hate it, and why wouldn’t you, it’s ill-fitting, uncomfortable and just all around blah, and if you wear it more than twice a year it bursts into flames or unravels into a massive ball of static and twine at your feet.

       Suits are made for more than walking around in. Find a style you like, find a men’s clothing store, go in, get measured, and fitted and get a decent suit. Be prepared to upsize your trousers. Just like women’s clothing, jean’s have fake sizing to make you feel better about yourself, this is called “vanity sizing” (Really, look it up.)  If you wear a 34 inch waist in Levi’s or Tommy or whatever it is you wear, you will not, I repeat NOT be squeezing yourself into a 34 inch trouser. Be honest with yourself, sizes are number and they vary, get something that will fit no matter what the tag says or what you think you wear, or what you wear in jeans or t-shirts. Holding on to that “I wear this size” mentality in a Men’s clothing store will end up with you looking something like this…

      There are alternatives, with suits you still get what you pay for. I will harken back to the field work example. Once upon a time suits were the norm, and they took a beating. Everyday wear that was used.  Even today some suit pedants will tell you, don’t unsew the pockets it will cause your jacket to lose shape, or carrying a bag strap on your should will wrinkle your lapel. If you don’t buy something to use it, why buy it in the first place. (Show pickups are just one example). I cycle to work, I roll my jacket up and stick it in my saddle bag, it doesn’t get wrinkled or ruined in the time it takes me to get to work, and here is a secret, if a suit fits well, even if it is wrinkled (modestly) the wrinkles will fall out within about 5 minutes of wear. I also have stuff in the pockets inside and out, even have a pocket square (that breast pocket is a real pocket too, I even carry my sunglasses in it).

       Once you get suit that actually fits you and not a store mannequin, you will never look at clothing the same way again. They should quickly become your favorite clothes, and why wouldn’t they? They are tailored for you. Do things in them, if a suit is restrictive get rid of it and get another one, if it looks like you are wearing your dads, you might be able to get away with a tailoring, but probably best to start over. I have gotten the “You bike to work, in your suit?” A couple times already. Asked for the genuine concern from their mother’s incessant “you’ll ruin your suits” mantra. So with Fall coming on take the time to get some real threads and don’t be afraid to suit up, you’ll be glad you did.

Dino Dynasties

The title, borrowed from Katherine Rogers’ book, is a segue into a bit of rewritten familial ahistory on my part. The Sternberg family began collecting fossils with Edward Drinker Cope, and led to a family of vertebrate paleontologists. A son found the famous “fish within a fish” fossil. Many of the sternbergs finds were near where they lived.
I only mention them to begin this aside into my little piece of “what could of been.”

My great-great grandparents lived in Atoka, Ok. My great-great grandfather was born in Leonard, TX farmed a huge swath of southeastern Oklahoma and is buried in Atoka County. I have no idea where my great-great grandmother is buried, but that is not the point.

The point is, if James Benjamin Burnes had taken time out of his busy schedule of surviving he may have found this:

Arcanthrosaurus atokensis.  It is entirely possible that he would have found nothing as well, but when you come across things discovered within walking distance of a past family farm, in a formation named after a town that my great grandfather’s brother lived in the thought does cross ones mind. There were hundreds (probably not that many) of other people that lived there, and they would have been equally likely to find the fossils, but their descendants are not writing pointless what if blogs on the internet.

My background is Eocene mammals, so it isn’t quite as heartbreaking that atokensis isn’t our family crest fossil, but the idea still is a fun one. Besides, James Benjamin as a young man cuts quite the paleontological figure.

Roy Chapman Andrews

         Roy Andrews may be the most popular (and likely) candidate for the inspiration behind Indian Jones. It is had to argue with the look, the hat, the field gear, the gun. But, one must remember that mot all field gear looks that way, and in general, so does field gear. Also, the time periods are pretty similar and toting a gun across the globe was less of a hassle then. Hopefully I will get to expand on Andrews a bit later after re editing a paper I wrote on him, but for now a short sweet introduction to get all the players on the board.

        Not much is known about it life before he graduated from college in Benoit, Wisconsin and became a professional explorer and he took great pains to control his image once he was. He wrote many books about his adventures and even some for children. He was, without a doubt the world’s most famous explorer in the 1920s. Where they difference comes is that he was a paleontologist not an archaeologist. Point of fact, he really wasn’t a trained paleontologist either. But he traveled to far off lands and discovered things, and just as importantly, he wrote about them. He was also a noted man to publicized the new trends and products. He always had a kind word for Dodge vehicles. Dodge was also a large financier of his expeditions.


        He had a brief pre-Dino life which involved whaling for the American Museum, but he is really known for finding the first dinosaur eggs in Mongolia. He really wasn’t out dinoing then either. The scientists at the American Museum were convinced that the earliest ancestors of man would be found in the far east. (interestingly enough, some modern findings are suggesting they may not have been as wrong as the Leakey’s and Don Johanson had hoped)

So introducing the first of the many facets that would make their way into spielberg’s hero: Roy Chapman Andrews.

       For full effect you can read the plethora of books written by Andrews, which if you are intested in him, you should. For a one hit wonder encompassing his most popular expedition you can read Dragon Hunter by Charles Gallenkamp.

The Original Blue-Bloods

I recently had the great fortune to deal with those kind individuals who help you move all your earthly possessions to another part of the globe.  U-HAUL has a neat little program of ignoring how much stress you are under and creating more annoyances for you to deal with.  But, they can be forgiven for their extemporaneous (and large) decals they smear on the sides of there water resistant (not water-proof) trucks. These include all kinds of Americana facts, many have great places to visit, sightseeing, famous happenings, etc. We got the one featuring the Hagerman Fossil Site in Idaho.  There are others however and one that got me thinking of something to share with the world at large is that of the Horseshoe crab: how it’s magical blood is helping the pharmaceutical companies test their products, and how it has been around since at least the second day of creation. (I made that up) But these guys have been around for at least 300 million years generally not giving a damn about human beings for most of that time.

Generally humans gave little damns about them as well. Fishermen use them as bait when fishing for conch, but other than that, they remained as black and white photos decorating your local Red Lobster. However, once tests were run on the copper based blood (ours, and pretty much everything else’s is an iron based red, except that royal family in the movie Stardust, they apparently bleed blue as well), some scientist got the vapors.  The extremely primitive immune system of the crab works in an extremely simple manner: if the animal receives an injury or a cut and bacteria or some other toxins attempt to infiltrate the animal, the blood congeals and forms a gelatinous barrier that protects the crab from infection. Think about that the next time you eat grape jell-o.  So now scientists, and pharmacuticalists, and other interested ists “harvest” horseshoe crabs (obviously they are related to wheat?) drain about 1/3 of their blood and return them to the wild to be caught by those same conch fishermen before. Studies guess that there is only a 10% mortality rate for the blood donors, but who really knows. I mean, 100% of the ones used as bait expire. So, do they carry donor cards and have fishermen release them until their 30 day replenishing is up? Doubtful. But that is the sacrifice they make, bloodletting to help a species that has only been around a fraction of their species’ time on this planet.

 Maybe we should blame the sand piper birds, after all they are the ones that fly in and devour millions of horseshoe crap eggs ever year at the annual horseshoe crab beach orgy. This has even been shown around National Geographic and Planet something narrated by Sir David Attenborough. Interestingly enough, there is a new book out about these guys written by retired paleontologist Richard Fortey. Put it on your summer reading list, read it at the beach and then tell your kids about how awesome that leggy writhing beach rock with a sharp tale actually is, and make sure to bring some blue jell-o.